The English novelist, John Mortimer, once said: “To escape jury duty in England, wear a bowler hat and carry a copy of the Daily telegraph.”While I am not sure this would still work today, it is certain that hats in general, and bowler hats in particular, are very rarely seen around anymore.
Some people might remark that ever since JFK stopped wearing hats in the 1960’s, the popularity of this formerly ubiquitous men’s accessory has decreased steadily. Other theories argue it was the automobile that made hats obsolete, since they were no longer needed for protection from the elements.
In any case, Debbie Henderson, who holds a Ph.D. and is currently a costume designer at the Wittenberg University Theatre Department in Ohio, has always been fascinated with hats. She has written a number of books on this topic, and today, we want to take a closer look at her book, Hat Talk, from 2002. It is not merely a simple analysis of the hat trade and its development, but rather a very interesting collection of interviews with hat makers about hat making and their life in the industry.
After the introduction, the first chapter brings us to Danbury, Connecticut. The town was also known as “Hat City” because its numerous hat factories produced almost a quarter of all the hats in the US at one point in time. The second chapter deals with famous American hat brands like Knox, Dunlap, Cavenaugh, Dobbs, etcetera, and provides us with insights about the industry. Bob Doran from Doran Brothers walks the reader through the company’s history, explaining in great detail how a felt hat was made.
The process of felting itself is very interesting because, unlike all other textiles, it is not spun or twisted into a yarn that is then woven or knitted. It is simply the culmination of the migration of fibers in a random mass. For hat making, fine animal hair like beaver, nutria, hare and rabbit were the most popular. A normal felt dress hat requires about 4 oz of hair. One rabbit only provides only about 1 oz of the quality hair need for hats, so 4 skins are needed for one hat. In 1946, there were about 600 felt makers (also called formers) around the world who processed around 320,000,000 rabbit skins per year! In 1903, they even processed 600,000,000 skins which were sourced in Australia, Europe and Asia! We also learn details about the 37 steps
involved in making a hat, ranging from choosing and purchasing the right skins, to forming, dyeing, blocking, and brim greasing.
The third chapter consists entirely of interviews with hat company executives, Jack Lambert, Gary Rosenthal and Robert Posey. These men discuss Stetson, Resistol, Stevens Hat Company and provide insights to the system of hat making.
The following chapter is completely dedicated to the bowler hat, also known as derby or coke (named after William Coke who came to Lock hatters in St. James and ordered the very first bowler). Debbie Henderson travelled to England in order to write this chapter. As such, it is very informative.
Chapter five deals with the Fedora hat and its snap brim. First, we learn that the origin of the word Fedora is traced back to the French writer, Victorien Sardou’s, play, Fédora (1881-1882). The characteristics of the hat are also covered. In the second part, the reader finds 4 interviews with hatters about the Fedora.
The sixth chapter is about the straw hat. It starts by tracing back the production of American straw hats to the late 18th century and continues with the straw hat boom in the 19th century and the Panama hat. The chapter closes with a long interview with John Milano of Texas.
Chapter seven is a mere seven pages long and briefly introduces the reader to caps.
The final chapter deals with the problems one faces when looking for vintage hats. They are often in bad shape and they are generally are harder to date (as opposed to ladies’ hats, which followed specific trends) because there were fewer basic styles and considerably fewer colors throughout the centuries.
In the appendix, the author was able to print three Stetson hat catalogs from 1913, 1914 and 1922, respectively. She also mentions historic hat maker extraordinaire, John Wm. Mc Micking, and talks a bit about the beaver and the nutria, (Myocastor Coypus) the two animals whose hair is used to created the finest felt hats.
In a nutshell, I immensely enjoyed reading Debbie Henderson’s Hat Talk because she provides a wealth of information. She asks the right questions and lets the experts talk. Moreover, the footnotes are very helpful. For only $19.95 you can get a paperback book which provides valuable information about the American and English hat trade. As such, I think it is a must-have for anybody who is interested in men’s hats.
You can order your copy directly from the author or for slightly more on Amazon.
HAT TALK: Conversations with 20th Century Hatters
By Debbie Henderson, Ph.D.
Paperback: 152 pages
Publisher: Wild Goose Press; 1st ed edition (2002)