In the spring of 1904 on a Rällinge farm in Södermanland, Sweden, a twelve-year-old boy named Gustav Karlsson made a big discovery in a potato field. What he found was a seven-centimeter-tall bronze statuette that dates back to the Viking Age.
There’s debate about the identity of the figure depicted, with some believing it is a playful Thor, others suggesting it is a game piece of some kind, and most others insisting it must be the god Freyr. But no matter who the statuette is supposed to be, the one thing no one argues about is that it is wearing a pom-pom hat.
If you happen to be French, or if you went to my American high school where our dance team *inexplicably shook their festive pompons whenever our team scored, then you may spell that a little differently, but I think most of us know what they are.
And I can pretty safely say that because while the Rällinge statuette is the oldest example we’ve found of the cutest little poofy, scraggly embellishment ever to adorn the top of a stocking cap, Sweden is far from the only place people have ever sported them. The fifteenth and sixteenth century cavalrymen of Central Europe known as the Hussars wore them as part of their otherwise intimidating hats. Napoleon’s army wore them as well, primarily as a way to distinguish regiments.
South Americans, too, long used pom-pom flourishes to indicate marital status. Clergymen in Rome have used pom-poms to denote their relative importance. And so have soldiers of the Scottish Highlands, from the time of the very earliest battles of the immortals among them trying to chop off one another’s heads, all the way up through much of the nineteenth century. And I’m betting all of those folks looked pretty darn cute.
Historical rumor has it that pom-poms have even occasionally been useful, and that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sailors out in rough waters wore adorable pom-poms on their hats to serve as a warning in tight, wobbly-legged spaces when one was about to bump one’s head so that maybe they could do something about it. Or perhaps be slightly cushioned if they couldn’t.
That might be true, or it could be one of those unsubstantiated “facts” posted willy-nilly on the internet by Abraham Lincoln. Either way, I don’t think anyone would argue that if Abraham Lincoln had worn a pom-pom hat, he would have looked pretty darn cute, too.
I am a little bit excited that the weather in my corner of the world has finally turned a bit more wintery after a really mild December. The warmth was nice because I definitely don’t love the bitter cold of right now, but I do enjoy wearing my pom-pom hat.
I have one that was hand-knitted for me by my husband’s grandmother years before he was my husband and long before she’d ever met me, which because of distance and travel difficulties didn’t happen until after the wedding. She made it for me to coordinate with the one she had previously made for him, which in addition to an adorable pom-pom on the top, includes his first name in big letters right across the front.
Not long after we met in college, I admired it. He mentioned how much I liked the stocking cap to his grandma, and the next thing I knew, he received one in the mail just for me. She was obviously a really lovely person who I wish I’d gotten a chance to know better, and only partly because I admire anyone who can make a hat.
I think of her now every year when the air turns cold and I don my favorite hat with a pom-pom that she made just for me, to demonstrate that I was someone special to her grandson, and by extension, to her. I have to assume she also didn’t want me to bump my head should I find myself sailing rough seas. And of course, it’s just a pretty darn cute hat.
*A few hours after I posted this, an alert reader (my mom) informed me that “pom-pom girl” can be used as another term for a prostitute, so as it turns out, the use of “pompon” in my high school was very intentional and not at all inexplicable. Thanks, Mom!