Roundtable: Ambassador in a Hat: The Sartorial Power of Benjamin Franklin’s Fur Cap

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Joanna M. Gohmann, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in 18th– and 19th-Century Art, at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

Benjamin Franklin (Augustin de Saint Aubin after Charles Nicholas Cochin, 1777, private collection)

While acting as the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin wore a fur hat to express his American status. The French enthusiastically accepted Franklin’s use of the topper, seeing it as an embodiment of the ambassador and a symbol of America and the American cause. When he first came to France in 1767, Franklin wore the clothes of a polite, fashionable Frenchman—a fine European suit and powdered wig—as a way to show respect to the French court. When he returned in 1776, he abandoned all the decorum of French dress and instead wore a simple, homespun brown suit, spectacles, and a large fur hat. He cleverly adopted this style as a way to garner attention and appeal to the French for support of the American cause.[1]

When writing to his friend Emma Thompson he excitedly reported his appearance:

“Figure me in your mind as jolly as formerly, and as strong and hearty, only a few   years older; being very plainly dress’d wearing my thin gray strait hair, that peeps out from under my only coiffure, a fine Fur Cap, which comes down to my Forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how this must appear among the powder’d heads of Paris!” [2]

This quotation certainly suggests that Franklin reveled in his sartorial difference and intentionally contrasted himself to the artificially powdered Parisians by styling himself naturally. More so than his other unusual fashion choices, Franklin’s hat garnered the most attention. The anonymously written Mémoires Secrets reported Franklin’s return to France, making note of his unusual appearance, stating: “He has a beautiful physiognomy, some hair, and a fur cap, which he constantly wears on his head.”[3] In a letter to Horace Walpole, Mme. du Deffand also spoke of his hat, noting that Franklin wore it during his visit in her home.[4]

Unsurprisingly, the topper plays a major role in Franklin’s French portraiture. The hat boldly stands out in the most popular French image of the ambassador: Augustin de Saint Aubin’s engraving after Charles Nicholas Cochin’s drawing (above). The engraving presents Franklin’s likeness in an oval frame suspended above an inscribed plaque that reads: Benjamin Franklin / Né à Boston, dans la nouvelle Angleterre le 17 Janvier 1706.” The artist emphasizes the cap by positioning it at the top of the portrait’s pyramidal composition. Thrown into high relief against a dark background, the hat occupies almost half of the frame, commands the viewer’s gaze, and emphasizes its extreme importance.

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B. Franklin (Jean Baptiste Nini, 1777, The Walters Art Museum)

The portrait medallion B. Franklin, American by Jean Baptiste Nini, an Italian sculptor working in Paris, continues to reveal the major role the fur hat played in Franklin’s identity in France. The medallion presents Franklin in profile, wearing a suit and stylized fur cap (left).[5] The hat, however, is not the type Franklin actually wore; his was more relaxed and looser fitting. Nini’s alteration can be understood as a formal attempt to suggest that the cap was a part of its owner’s body. Franklin looks quite comfortable in this particular adornment.[6] Nini employs a similar arching line to define Franklin’s shoulder, upper cheekbone, and the hat’s crown.

By repeating the line across the sitter’s body, Nini suggests the hat is a natural part the ambassador. The French had ample opportunity to contemplate the hat as an extension of Franklin’s own body, as artists reproduced the medallion on jewelry, snuffboxes, and engravings. Franklin himself commented on its popularity, telling his daughter that popularity of this portrait “made [his] face as well known as that of the [man in] the moon.”[7]

The French probably believed that beaver pelts, a material associated with their experience of North America, were the primary material in Franklin’s cap.[8] Until 1763, when France lost its North American territories at the end of the Seven Years’ War, beaver pelts—used to fashion tricorne hats—were the most lucrative export from colonial New France. Although the French fur trade had been disbanded by the time Franklin donned his topper, fur on the head of an American probably reminded the French of their North American export. Franklin’s hat, however, was not like a French tricorne hat made of felted beaver pelts; his hat had a shapeless quality and consisted of untreated pelt. [9]

This difference was essential to the successful reception of Franklin’s cap, as its relaxed, organic quality resonated with how the French imagined America.[10] The eighteenth-century writer Michel René Hilliard d’Auberteuil recognized the meaning of Franklin’s sartorial choices, noting:

“Everything [on] him announced the simplicity and innocence of primitive morals … Franklin had laid aside the wig which formerly in England hid the nudity of his forehead and the useless adornment that would have left him at the level of other English.”[11]

The French adopted the hat’s symbolic associations. Not only did those Frenchmen sympathetic to the American Revolution don fur caps, but women also began to fashion their hair in coiffures à la Franklin, a style that mimicked the shape of Franklin’s famous topper.[12] Indeed, Franklin’s hat was more than a hat. It was a sartorial object that came to evoke America and the young nation’s cause.[13]

_________________

[1] Kimberley Chrisman-Campbell, Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 165-6.

[2] Benjamin Franklin to Emma Thompson, February 8, 1777, in Digital Ben Franklin Project, Yale University with The Packard Humanities Institute, <accessed 15/07/2015>. (http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=23&page=296c).

[3] Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la republique des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’a nous Jours; ou Journal d’un Observateur…, Vol. 10 (London: Chez John Adamson, 1778), 33.

[4] “31 Décembre, 1776 à 6 heurs, du matin …. M. Franklin à côté avec un bonnet de fourrure sur sa tête …” in Letters of the Marquise Du Deffand to the Hon. Horace Walpole: afterwards Earl of Orford, from the year 1766 to the year 1780. To which are added letters of Madame Du Deffand to Voltaire, from the year 1759 to the year 1775. Published from the originals at Strawberry Hill (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 39 Paternoster-Row, 1810), 214-5. For discussions and analyses of additional references to Franklin’s appearance, see: Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries (New York: New York University Press, 1957), esp. 235-6; Betty-Bright P. Low, France Views America, 1765-1815: An Exhibition to Commemorate the Bicentenary of French Assistance in the American War of Independence (Wilmington: Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation, 1978), 55; Charles Coleman Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962). Chrisman-Campbell discusses Franklin’s impact on the French fashion in Fashion Victims, 165-70.

[5] For an account of Nini’s process, see Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture, 103-7.

[6] Until now, scholars have argued that this change was a way to declare that Franklin, like Rousseau, was a cutting-edge intellectual. For an analysis of this portrait’s relation to portraits of Rousseau, see Ibid., 68; Mungo Campbell, “A Rational Taste for Resemblance: Redefining Ramsay’s Reputation” in Allan Ramsay: Portraits of the Enlightenment, ed. Mungo Campbell with Anne Dulau (New York: Prestel, 2014), 41. While Campbell does not explicitly state that Franklin intentionally looked to Rousseau’s images, he does suggest state that Franklin and Ramsey shared similar political views and were friends. Rousseau, too, Campbell notes, was surprisingly sympathetic to the American cause. Ramsey, Rousseau, and Franklin were thus connected in one way or another.

[7] Benjamin Franklin to Sarah Bache (Sally), June 3, 1779, in Digital Ben Franklin Project, Yale University with The Packard Humanities Institute,<accessed 15/07/2015>.

[8] For economic histories of the French fur trade in North America see: Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: an introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Marc Egnal, New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. 139-43; Dietland Müller-Schwarze and Lixing Sun, The Beaver (Ithaca: Comstock Publishing Associates, 2003), 145-6; Ann M. Carlos & Frank D. Lewis, “Fur Trade (1670-1870),” EH.Net Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-the-fur-trade-1670-to-1870/.

[9] Colonial New France spanned from Newfoundland across the Canadian prairies and down from the Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. For a discussion of how the French beaver pelts were used to produce tricorne hats, see: Madeline Ginsburg, The Hat: Trends and Traditions (London: Studio Editions, 1990), 66. Natalie Hawkins discusses the felt hat industry in Britain, outlines the production of felted tricorne hats, and analyzes the French impact of the English market in “From Fur to Felt Hats: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Consumer Revolution in Britain, 1670-1730” (MA thesis, University of Ottawa, 2014), esp. 68, 83-4. The French, and English for that matter, could only keep up with the major demand for North American beaver skin because of their contact with Native Americans. For a discussion of the Native American role in fur trapping, see: Arthur J. Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Roles as Trappers, Hunters, and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660-1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[10] For French descriptions of America during this moment, see for example: Raynal, Histoire philosophique of 1770, as quoted in Durand Echeverria, Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), 32.

[11] Michel René Hilliard d’Auberteuil as quoted in Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture, 73.

[12] Ibid., 99; Chrisman-Campbell, Fashion Victims, 169. Also in Fashion Victims, Chrisman-Campbell dedicates her eleventh chapter, “Fashions à la Américaine,” to the ways in which the French used their fashionable adornments to support and declare allegiance to the American cause.

[13] In a letter to Walpole, Mme. du Deffand wrote about Franklin’s appearance, taking special note of his “white hat,” which was likely a pale golden brown. She astutely asked, “Is that white hat a symbol of liberty?” Even Mme. du Deffand, whose anti-American sentiments were well known, understood the symbolic nature of Franklin’s fur fashion. See Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 348.

One comment on “Roundtable: Ambassador in a Hat: The Sartorial Power of Benjamin Franklin’s Fur Cap

  1. Nice article on how Franklin successfully employed fashion to aid his diplomatic mission.

    However, Franklin’s first use of the fur hat was not so successful. In 1776, He acquired the fur hat on a failed mission to secure Canadian participation in the Revolution. He traveled to Montreal in the dead of winter and needed furs ro stay warm! For more information on this failed diplomatic mission see

    https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/franklins-failed-diplomatic-mission/

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