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Before Red Hats, Keys women donned Red Shawls

Posted Oct 1, 2015 Posted by One Comment

redshawlWell over a century ago, in a period of time referred to by Key Westers as “the Romantic 1800’s”, sponging was a prosperous industry and wrecking provided such a bountiful yield that by 1850 Key West had reached a degree of affluence that made it a wealthy city.

Ships from many countries lined the wharves, their holds laden with provisions and lumber. It was from the wreck of one such vessel, legend has it, that a cargo of red shawls was salvaged and promptly distributed to all the local women folk. These shawls were gladly accepted for, as well as being colorful, they made an excellent protection from the sun or provided warmth on a chilly morning; and so began a fashion that was to endure for many years.

Eventually, it became a matter of course for the ladies to ask their sea-faring menfolk to bring home lengths of plaid or red merino wool which were readily converted to the now-familiar red triangles. The ladies would vie against each other to produce the most exquisite shawl in town, paisley patterns being among the more popular.

It is well to remember at this point that the streets of Key West were narrow and the houses were built very close to each other. Being an island city, unapproachable except by water, news of the outside world only came with the arrival of the mail-carrying vessels. After each letter was read and each item of news was absorbed, the ladies would don their shawls and relay the gossip to each other across the fence or from veranda-to-veranda and even street to street as they went visiting. This gossip became affectionately known as “Red Shawling.”

Red Shawls are still worn by volunteers during the Old Island Restoration Foundation’s winter house tours.

Photo caption: Peggy Murphree wears the red shawl for an Old Island Restoration Foundation event, circa 1970s.

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