Everyday Puritanism

H. L. Mencken, 1880–1956
Public policy aside, what were Puritans like? H. L. Mencken made the famous remark that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” However well this description may have fit Mencken’s actual targets—America’s moralistic busybodies and book-banners of the early 20th century—it doesn’t fairly describe the people who settled Massachusetts Bay. They did consider life a serious matter, and they certainly thought it wrong to waste one’s limited time on earth. The strength of their work ethic impressed many visiting travelers. But they didn’t purposely cultivate gloom, nor did they even ban alcohol (as Mencken’s “Puritans” did, to his great displeasure). Though neither liquor nor humor, in its rightful place and proportion, was frowned on, spending one’s whole day in a tavern, producing nothing but jolly conversation, was.

In some ways, the Puritans preserved attitudes that went back to medieval times before the Reformation. As we all know, these attitudes included belief in the reality of witches and witchcraft—but the colony also opposed lending money at interest, or raising the price of a commodity like wheat above its “natural price” when it was scarce. (If there’s any truth in the theory that the Reformation paved the way to market capitalism and laissez-faire economics, the way it paved must have taken a detour around Massachusetts Bay.)

Colonial Puritan society, though less stratified than what its members left behind in England, was not without social levels. Only well-to-do gentry could be addressed as Master or Mistress, while respectable common folk were Goodman or Goodwife (the latter commonly shortened to Goody). Only commoners were subject to the legal punishment of whipping—gentlefolk (unless they preached heresy and refused to be silenced) paid penalties more in keeping with their position. “Sumptuary laws,” specifying the kind and quality of clothing a person of this or that economic class was allowed to wear, tried to prevent the lower class from looking upper-class—another legacy from the Middle Ages.
King Charles I, 1600–1649
Although their garments might vary in richness, however, it’s true that the Puritans favored sober, dark colors over bright ones. Their revolt against the medieval church (and its tendencies as they were continued in the Church of England) was partly fueled by disgust at the extremes and extravagances that characterized the lives of the powerful—secular aristocrats as well as churchmen. Just as the church and its services should imitate the simple ways of the early Christians, Puritans felt that every Christian should curb tendencies toward the self-glorification expressed in the rich and sensuous lifestyles that characterized England’s powerful and wealthy classes in their time. (Perhaps it isn‘t fair to illustrate this with a portrait of the king himself, since kings were generally expected to dress brilliantly, and everyone probably dressed up for a portrait painter. But there's no better way to demonstrate the sort of thing that made Puritans shudder. It's impossible to imagine an early Christian in a getup like this.)
Puritans or Pilgrims on the way to church
George Henry Broughton painted this famous picture in 1867. He first called it “Early Puritans of New England Going to Church” but later said that it represented the Pilgrim fathers. Although that looks at first glance like a marketing ploy—Pilgrims having a generally better press than Puritans—he did claim that his popular pictures of early New England were in fact inspired by a book about the Plymouth colony. It makes little difference, because the people of the two colonies felt the same way about clothes, as about many things. Like other Protestants in 17th-century Europe, they chose to dress soberly as a sign of their intention to reject vain and narcissistic display, and make their way seriously through the world.

And, yes, many men did, in the early years at least, wear tall, tapered hats. Called capotains, these were in fashion in England and elsewhere from the 1590s at least up to 1620. (The favored height seems to have increased annually.) Puritans, in England as well as the colonies, apparently hung onto the fashion—and the tallest hats—somewhat longer. The “steeple-crowned hat” has become so thoroughly associated with Massachusetts Puritans that it seems to have found its way into every artist’s conception of the way they dressed. In fashion or out, it’s likely that this headgear wasn’t quite as universal as many illustrations suggest. (According to a note in Wikipedia, artists added the big straps and buckles to the hats in the 19th century—no doubt they would have baffled respectable citizens of Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay.)
The Geneva Bible
Another difference between the Puritans of Massachusetts and their modern descendants was their vigorous interest in thinking and talking about how the Bible applied to their lives. Believing that its pages held everything God wanted to communicate to humankind, they applied themselves to diligent study of the sacred texts under the guidance of their chosen shepherds and teachers, the parish ministers. To our bemusement, they not only tolerated, but hungered for a couple of two-hour sermons every Sunday, plus another on Thursday, which in many towns was “lecture day,” at least for all whose work allowed them to attend. (Work was of course forbidden on the Sunday Sabbath.) Most homes had a Bible, and what leisure time could be taken was often devoted to the reading and contemplation of its words.

The picture shows the Geneva Bible, produced by exiled English Protestant scholars in 1560. It was first printed in England during the 1570s, and was the version used by most Puritans until after the English Civil War.