Ever since reading Women Travelers, I’ve sort of felt the need for a pith helmet. They are a fairly easy item to find, but every time I ran across one, I was not impressed with the quality. I mean, did Gertrude Bell ride across Iraq wearing plastic and faux leather? I think not. But I recently found a hat actually made of pith, and I knew I’d found my hat.
To be honest, I knew nothing about pith helmets before I found this one. I’ve had to do a bit of homework, and what I found was fascinating. The hats were originally actually made from the pith of the aeschynomene aspera plant. This plant was commonly known as the sola with the hats being called “sola topee” in Hindi. The English thought they were saying “solar topee”, and so the name sun hat, or sun helmet, was also applied to the hat.
Hats made from sola pith were made mainly in India, but also in surrounding countries like Pakistan. In places where the sola did not grow, other materials were used, like cork.
My hat is a style called the “Bombay Bowler.” There is a photo of Churchill wearing one during WWII. Pith helmets date back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but I could not find when this particular style originated.
My helmet is missing the inside band. It would have covered the writing and gone nearly to the edge of the grey cloth you can see in the top right corner of my photo.
Can you tell that the grey cloth covers a heavy paper that is pleated? That is to allow for additional ventilation. There are also four holes that allow air to circulate.
Besides the inside band, this hat is also missing the chin strap which rested across the front brim.
These hats were worn by officials in the British Empire, but they were also available for civilians to purchase and wear. Perhaps some woman traveler bought this one while traversing the East and brought it home to North Carolina.