By Allister Townson-Muse
The White Pine County Museum Board members have been in a fury of activity the past several months at our lovely museum. They have spent countless hours cataloging, cleaning and rearranging the hidden treasures currently on display. It is the boards’ intent to provide highlights of many of the exhibits throughout the year.
One of the unique discoveries, found
during the clean-up, is a collection of wooden hat blocks and brims. These hand carved blocks and brims were created by the “Hatter’s Company”. This Millinery supply company has been in existence since the mid-1860s and it’s estimated that the WPCo. Museums’ blocks were constructed prior to World War I.
Our wooden hat blocks and brims started as a chunk of roughhewn wood that had been dried. The wood is typically light-weight and easy to carve, which makes the finished product simple to store and transport. The museum’s crown blocks are one piece and once carved, they are sanded and varnished. Puzzle blocks or “American style blocks” have the crowns fashioned into 4 to 5 pieces for easy removal after the hat is completed. The crowns were stamped with sizes “6-3/4”, “7”, “7-1/4”, etc. and customers would choose the closest fit. The next decision is what type of material to make the hat out of. Hat materials range from beaver, lamb, rabbit and straw to crin (horse hair) and willow grass, just to name a few.
If your choice of hat leans toward the Cowboy or Fedora style, you’re in luck since the hat blocks on display at the museum were carved just for that reason. With the material decided upon, (felt- in this instance) a 40 inch tepee shaped piece, is heavily steamed or immersed in very hot water to make it pliable. It’s then set over the crown block. Then a tool, simply called a “puller-downer” (a piece of wood designed in a long flattened “U” shape) is used to push the felt down around the crown block. A cord is tied around the felt base to prevent slipping. Next a “pusher-downer, (it resembles a thick, flat wooden spoon) is used to completely push the felt fully against the hat form. The “Tolliker” foot is then used to create the perfect break where the crown and brim meet. The brim is ironed against the brim board to stiffen and then trimmed to the customer’s desired width with a Brim Cutter or Rounding Jack. If the brim is of a rolled style, then that tedious job is done with the fingers.
Once the hat has cooled, it’s sanded and brushed. The brushing produces tiny felt balls and snags. To remove this excess felt, a 99% alcohol wash is applied to the crown, then briefly lit on fire. The hat is again brushed to a slick finish.
Back in the day, when the hat was to be removed from the block, a whale bone from a woman’s corset was placed between the block and hat, and gently worked so as not to stretch the material until the hat was removed.
Almost two hundred years ago, America was the “Hat Capitol of the World” and for many years hats were the country’s biggest export product. The first union ever established in the United State was the United Hatter’s of North America, created in Danbury, Conn. in 1880.
At the start of the Civil War, the hat industry slowed dramatically with the loss of Southern purchasing, but began a steady climb that lasted until the advent of World War II. When severe rationing started, the fur industry stopped supplying hat materials, the wooden blocks were burned for heat and the metal hat forms were donated to metal drives to help with the war effort. The hat industry took a terrible beating and almost disappeared entirely. Eventually, in the mid-60s there was a much needed hat revival that continues till today.
In times long passed, the hat was a symbol of your station in life. The bigger the hat, the more prominent the wearer. If a gentleman wore a top hat, he was considered more refined and financially secure. A man who wore a derby was firmly ensconced in the middle class, working for pennies at menial jobs. And those who wore a common slouch hat where considered to on the fringes of society. As time progressed and styles changed, the Fedora became “every man’s “hat –a true icon.Please bring your family to the White Pine County Museum and see the history of our town, state and country. Spend a day making memories and telling tall tales to your children.