A tip of the hat to history

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Established in the Reign of King George the Fourth
FASHION – Speciality. “AILE DE CORBEAU” – The most brilliant Silk Plush yet produced – retains its glossy brilliancy in wear.

IN 1797, a Mr Hetherington, haberdasher by trade, caused a storm in the streets of London by wearing a new invention, the silk top hat. He was arrested for disturbing the peace, and fined £50, with a witness testifying: “He appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny luster and calculated to frighten timid people)… several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.”

It’s a great story but, sadly, not true and first appeared only about 100 years later. Given the bewildering variety of hats of the time, it’s hard to believe anyone would be so disturbed by a new style.

It’s easy to forget how common an item of wear hats once were, until the mass adoption of the motorcar in the 1950s – and long hair (for men) in the 1960s – saw them fall out of fashion. No respectable man, or woman, would once have gone out of doors without one and there was a whole industry supplying and looking after them.

The hat check ‘girl’ was an early occupation for independent women and it required brains to keep track of hundreds of near-identical hats, matching the right one with the right patron. Pay depended on tips, so flirtation was a key skill, giving them a reputation for cheek and loose morals. One of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest parts was as a struggling singer working as a hat check girl (cloakroom attendant) in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954).

Patrons did resent the cost of checking a hat several times during an evening out, but it was preferable to finding someone had ‘accidentally’ taken your good hat from a hook, leaving their battered reject. Good hats cost a lot of money then, and still do.

London was a centre for hatmaking and you can see the Henry Heath Hat Factory (pictured) on Oxford Street, near the corner with Great Chapel Street, topped by statues of beavers. Beaver fur was preferred to rabbit for its water-proofing qualities and, from the 1550s onward, the beaver hat was a must-have. The European beaver had been hunted to near-extinction by the 1600s but the trade was revived when the Hudson’s Bay Company started imports from Canada in the early 1700s.

The wealth from this trade was an underlying reason for the war between France and Britain in Canada and accelerated the exploration of the west of the country in search of fresh beaver stocks.

Look inside up inside the gates of St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate, and you can see the splendid Arms of the company, complete with beavers (pictured), while a beaver weathervane tops the building (pictured). This was the London headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company until 1970.

In the mid-1800s, some 50 years after Mr Hetherington’s supposed first outing, silk replaced felted fur as the popular material for hats and the fur trade collapsed.

Will hats ever come back? There are some signs they are. In the meantime, let us remember the words of Mr Pete Doherty:
“There are fewer more distressing sights than that
Of an Englishman in a baseball cap.”
(The Libertines – Time for Heroes)

Some links about top hats:
Guide to buying a top hat/
Royal Ascot: Gentlemen prefer toppers

Advertisement in Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879:

Why wear an Ill-fitting Hat?

HENRY HEATH’S Successful system of Head Measurement ensures the luxury of a well-fitting Hat adapted to the form of the wearer’s head. The principle is equally applicable to Hats selected from Stock. Residents in the Country can ensure a comfortable fitting Hat being forwarded by writing for HENRY HEATH’S New Measuring Band, which takes the form and size of head. Post free, with Card of Shapes, &c. Hats forwarded to any part safely in wood boxes. No extra charge.

HENRY HEATH, manufacturing his own Goods can guarantee – 1st , Their Quality; 2nd Excellence of Finish; 3rd Style; his Factory (adjoining) employs upwards of Seventy Persons.

His goods cannot be procured at or through any Co-operative Stores. He has always refused to supply goods to or be in any way affiliated to them. His goods are charged Cash Prices, and will compare favourably with any Store Goods. His customers can always rely upon receiving business-like attention.



6 thoughts on “A tip of the hat to history

  1. I have just PURCHASED my FIRST top hat (Having aquired a rather battered Opera Hat 20 years ago), a sassy Grey number to wear with a morning suit at the races. It came in a Henry Heath Box, with the original owners name & address on and a Gerog V stamp with a date of 1950. It is in great condition for a hat 2 years older than myself and I paid just £23 for it (January 2014), I wonder what it cost in 1950!

    1. That is a bargain. You are lucky to find one that fits as our head sizes are getting larger, as we all get bigger and taller than earlier generations. Enjoy!

  2. I google this site as I have a Devon crown butter dish with advertising for Heaths of Oxford Street on it. I acquired it 28 years ago and wondered if anyone may be interested in it to buy. I have no idea of it value and it has a crack inside the base. Any feedback would be good. Thank you, Dawn

  3. This is all fascinating stuff and I hate to be ‘that guy’ but I reckon this could have used a proper proof-read before publication. For example: “from the 1550s onward, the beaver hat was a must-have from the 1550s”. And saying hats fell out of fashion with the arrival of the motorcar in the 1950s….. Cars had been around a good many decades by then! It’s not that I want to be a pedant but stuff like this really jars when reading an article and it puts me off the site that’s published it.

    1. Hi Peter – Many thanks for those suggested edits, which I have made to the page. I hate to see mistakes like that myself and I do apologise. This is still one of my favourite buildings in Oxford Street and I do love my hats. K

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