by Gail Adams
Have you ever been called a “pudding head?” Ever wonder where this seemingly endearing term comes from?
Many historians believe that the term “pudding head” came from the colonial belief that if children learning to walk fell frequently and hit their heads, they could scramble their brains, making them like the consistency of pudding, thereby becoming “pudding heads.” In Colonial Williamsburg’s Children’s glossary, it adds that toddlers were often and lovingly referred to as “little pudding heads.”
It is very possible that the ten Howland children wore pudding caps to prevent them from becoming pudding heads!
A pudding cap is a stuffed roll placed on a toddler’s head and tied in the back. It was worn for the same reason children today wear helmets — to protect the brain from damage in a fall.
In several Flemish and Dutch paintings of the early 17th century are found toddlers of the 1620-30’s wearing their pudding caps. A drawing by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) shows a toddler wearing one that is a sausage shaped padded roll of fabric, tied at the back of the head. There is one narrow ribbon stretched across the top of the head (from side to side, not front to back) and continues as ties under the chin. There is a linen cap under the pudding cap.
In a memoir published in the early 1820’s about a man born in the 1720’s is a description of the pudding cap. “This pudding consisted of a broad black silk band padded with wadding which went round the middle of the head, joined to two pieces of ribband (ribbon) crossing on the top of the head and then tied under the chin; so that by this most excellent contrivance children’s heads were often preserved uninjured when they fall.”
Later examples survive and may be found in British and American Museums. Many of these date from the mid to late 1700’s. In the Manchester (England) City Museum there is a blue silk dress trimmed with gold lave that has a pudding trimmed to match. Another is found in Williamsburg, Virginia made of blue velvet and silk. Instead of being a sausage, it is made of four panels, straight across and with a shallow arched top, standing about 2-3 inches tall. The panels are quilted vertically, for the purpose of controlling the stuffing, making the velvet look like corduroy. This one dates to about 1770.
Pudding caps went out of style toward the turn of the 19th century. If you are ever in Washington D.C. you can see a pudding cap at the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. It is located in the Wisconsin State Room. Of the more than 33,000 items in the DAR collection, the pudding cap is truly one of the most intriguing items! As a DAR Museum Docent, I always enjoy interpreting the Wisconsin Room set in the late 1600’s. It reminds me of Howland House and our Mayflower ancestors.
I once had some visitors from the Midwest. They did not know where the term pudding head originated. When we talked about it, the lady looked rather annoyed. It turns out her father-in-law addresses her “Hey pudding head” quite often!