What Happened to the Cap? The Dawn of the Cap

Part 1

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


May 03, 2011

In This Article

Why a Nurse's Cap?

In 1940, an anonymous nurse historian pondered the purpose of the nurse's cap:

Why a cap? For keeping the hair in place? As an identifying mark? Or was it merely to serve some other non-utilitarian purpose? The answer is buried in the deep shadows of the past. No one has ever discovered the true origin of the cap.[2]

Around the time that nursing became an honorable calling for which one was formally trained, rather than a loathsome occupation suitable only for unsavory and fallen women, it was perfectly natural for nurses to wear caps. In fact, all women wore head coverings indoors and when going out; no respectable women would go hatless.

The practice of wearing caps may have been influenced by religion. At the earliest schools of nursing in Paris and Germany, student caps were similar to the veils that accompanied the habits worn by the nuns who ran these schools. In her 1920 Short History of Nursing, Lavinia Dock wrote that the nurse's cap was "a perpetual reminder of St. Paul's strange injunction that women must cover their heads or be shorn." [3]

Nurses continued to wear caps after it was no longer customary for women in general to do so. When Florence Nightingale, credited with being the founder of modern nursing, organized nurses to go to Scutari during the Crimean War in 1854 to care for sick and wounded soldiers, she required the women to wear a uniform and special nurse's cap, to the consternation of some recruits. Rebecca Lodge, Collections Manager of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, England, tells of a nurse named Rebecca Lawfield, who complained bitterly to Miss Nightingale about having to wear a cap.

"I came out, Ma'am, prepared to submit to everything ... but there are some things, Ma'am, one can't submit to ... and if I'd known, Ma'am, about the caps, great as was my desire to come out to nurse at Scutari, I wouldn't have come."

After the Crimean War the Nightingale Training School was set up at St. Thomas' Hospital, which also imposed a strict uniform on its nurses. Probationers were required to wear a short, square-looking cap that Miss Nightingale almost certainly helped to design. Florence never worked as a nurse at the hospital. Popular images of Miss Nightingale suggest that she always wore a head covering (Figures 2-4), but not a nurse's cap. (Rebecca Lodge, personal communication, March 20, 2011)

Figure 2. Florence Nightingale wearing her customary cap. Library of Congress.

Figure 3. Florence Nightingale's cap on display. Image courtesy of Florence Nightingale Museum Trust, London, England.

Figure 4. Florence Nightingale (center) in her later years, surrounded by the probationers of St. Thomas' Hospital wearing their mandatory caps. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.


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