A Tip of the Hat to History
A jaunt through hat fashion history!
Deep in many closets in the hills, there is a hat that someone once loved, a hat that marked a special day or event, or a hat that, in a time gone by, proudly declared membership in a group. Sometimes the hat goes back generations and has become an heirloom, or it may have been kept simply because it’s unique, truly one of a kind. Very often it’s a hat that just couldn’t be thrown away because it served so faithfully it became a companion.
Whatever the reason for keeping it, the rediscovery of a special hat, almost always while searching for something else, stirs the warm power of memory and nostalgia. Because many people have felt that power and were reluctant to discard a treasure, we are able to present this brief reflection on hats and history. To those people we say, “Thanks for the memories.”
A scan of the crowd at the Shelburne Fair in the 1930s would have revealed a number of these distinctive straw hats, possibly including the one on the right, which Donald Ferguson of Melancthon Township might have worn as he strolled the grounds.
Boaters were first worn by men in the 1890s and soon became a seasonal harbinger, for they are a warm weather hat and their appearance at public events meant spring had arrived. The straw boater was both stylish and versatile. If the sun was hot at the Shelburne Fair, for example, function would take precedence and Donald could shade himself by wearing it horizontally. But at a strawberry social in, say, Honeywood or Redickville, the boater would probably have been worn at a jaunty angle no matter what the weather.
Donald’s hat has an iconically Canadian connection. It was manufactured by the T. Eaton Co. and was almost certainly purchased by mail order from their well-known catalogue. As early as the 1890s, Eaton’s factories were manufacturing goods as varied as easy chairs and horse collars. Every home in these hills was sure to have the latest Eaton’s catalogue near the kitchen table.
Reputed to have been invented by Parisian milliner Caroline Reboux around 1915, the cloche took the fashion world by storm in the 1920s after it was adopted by showbiz personalities such as Joan Crawford and Josephine Baker. So popular was the cloche that it generated a new hairstyle – a short, slicked-down cut known as the “Eton crop.” At first the cloche was made of felt with little design or detail, but over time it became more elaborate, like Annie Webster’s straw version (shown above), which was intended for summer wear.
Annie (Ferguson) Webster (1914–2006) of Horning’s Mills, East Garafraxa and Fergus was a talented musician and music teacher here in the hills. In 1951 she competed in Shelburne’s first Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest. She purchased her cloche in the early 1920s, not long before milliner Caroline Reboux died at age 90.
Imagine standing at the bottom of a hill on the Mono-Amaranth Townline. It is a Saturday morning in September 1870. On the other side of the hill, the sound of marching feet is coming toward you. As the sound nears, you first see hats like the one pictured rise over the crest of the hill, then the men wearing them.
What’s immediately apparent, in addition to the distinctive hats, is the age range of the marchers. Some are just teenagers, while others could be their grandfathers. Most wear overalls, and they march in slightly ragged formation with a variety of weapons on their shoulders. But everyone wears one of these hats, for they distinguish members of the Whittington Rifle Company, one of many militia units formed in these hills as part of the 36th Peel Battalion, later the Peel and Dufferin Regiment and, ultimately, the Lorne Scots.
After Confederation in 1867, Canada had to provide its own defence. The dreaded Fenians and fear of an aggressive United States meant militia units were hurriedly formed around the country. The new militia was haphazardly attired, so many units made a point of acquiring at least one distinctive uniform item.
Members of the Whittington Rifle Company sported hats like this one worn by members of the Spence family, who settled on the Second Line of Amaranth Township around 1850.
Military Peaked Cap
When the 153rd (Wellington) Battalion crossed the Atlantic in April 1917 to join the Allied forces in France, the man wearing this cap was already 52 years old. Not an ideal age for combat, but James Justice was an officer, a major who had served in the militia for 22 years, including a long stint as commander of No. 7 Company, Erin, 30th Regiment, Wellington Rifles. Major Justice (1865–1952) served in France and survived to return to his family and his contracting business in Erin, where he also pursued an interest in municipal politics, serving as councillor and reeve, as well as warden of Wellington County.
Like most military peaked caps, this wool cap has a short polished leather visor with crown bands and piping. And like most Canadian army accessories from World War I, it is remarkably plain. It was “service dress,” essentially the basics.
Almost all caps in today’s military have gold braid on the band to indicate rank, with further embellishment on the visor. Nothing like that for Major Justice. Although Canadian officers in World War I could dress up their peaked caps, usually at their own expense, it seems he chose not to.
Still, this is a cap with stories to tell. The ship that carried Major Justice to Europe took a torpedo right after unloading the 153rd. The cap, if it could talk, might tell us why its regimental badge is missing. It might also reveal the answer to an even more intriguing mystery: Why is a strip of newspaper – found in 2011 – rolled up inside the hat band? The strip, which is two centimetres wide, was cut from a four-page spread that appeared in the Erin Advocate on December 31, 1922, and the major has signed it. One can only speculate.
Olive’s Baseball Cap
It’s quite possible that in mid-May 1925 Olive Henderson enjoyed strutting around Bolton wearing this cap, for she was a member of the Bolton Ladies’ Softball Team that was tearing up the competition. The team had soundly defeated the Woodbridge Kodaks in an exhibition game, a victory that was especially sweet because Woodbridge had slipped in four players from Toronto’s Sunnyside League. A couple of days later, Olive and her teammates defeated the Kodaks in a regular league game. The team eventually went on to win the All-Ontario title that year and advanced to the semifinals of the Canadian Championship at the CNE.
Historians agree that softball, first called “kittenball,” “mushball” and a variety of other names, began in Chicago in 1887 but was slow to catch on. (The sport took a hundred years to make the Olympics, and even now its place in the Olympics is not assured.) American sport histories point to 1933 as the year the rules of softball were standardized by a national governing body so the sport could grow and prosper.
Unlike contemporary baseball caps, Olive’s has no logo. That idea developed in the 1940s. But her hat is designed on principles that began in the 1860s and continue today: panels that come together at the crown and an extended brim for shading sunlight. In 1925 it was not unusual for a cap to be a team’s only common uniform item. The fact that the Bolton Ladies also wore a uniform sweater made it clear they were a force to be respected.
The Mark of a Gentleman
The origin of the top hat is uncertain, but on two facts there is agreement. One is that the top hat was introduced to British society in 1797 when a haberdasher named Hetherington wore the startling new topper on the streets of London – and caused a near riot. He ended up being arrested for disturbing the peace. A second is that after 1850, when dashing Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, wore a top hat in public, this towering and most impractical headpiece became a fashion necessity.
When James Keith came to East Garafraxa from Ireland in 1870, his father’s beaver top hat (upper left) came with him. James farmed on the 12th Line and pursued a sideline as a stonemason (some of his work still stands around Marsville). But no matter how he made his living, with the hat on, James became a “gentleman.”
James’s “stovepipe” represents another hat fact. Because beaver fur was the go-to material for top hats, Canada’s national rodent was driven nearly to extinction. A switch to silk in the later 19th century relieved the pressure.
George Broughton brought his “silk” (upper right) to Canada after wearing it at his marriage to Mary Goodwin in England. The couple first farmed in Wellington’s Peel Township and then Caledon, before moving to Erin around 1901.
The fact that James and George brought these top hats across the Atlantic despite the cost and inconvenience underlines how crucial it must have been to a man’s self-esteem to own and wear one.
“Every Duke and Earl and Peer Is Here”
Famous racing events have a character of their own. The Queen’s Plate has excitement. The 100-metre dash at the Olympics has anticipation. The Kentucky Derby has tradition, and the Indianapolis 500 has roar. England’s Royal Ascot, on the other hand, has aura. This aura arises from the royalty who attend, as described by the lyrics of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, and most particularly from the fashion parade the event has become. In fact, media coverage of what everyone wears far outweighs the reporting of race results.
The Royal Ascot invites sartorial flare, but even so, a dress code is strictly enforced, especially for anyone privileged enough to be invited to the Royal Enclosure. For women, the code emphasizes modesty – no bare shoulders, for example – and discourages excess. Hats are required in the Royal Enclosure, but contrary to popular belief, fascinators are specifically forbidden. Which makes the hat shown here an ideal choice. It is elegant and tasteful, and suggests a sunny day in summer, perfect for rubbing shoulders with the Queen.
This hat was worn in the Royal Enclosure at the 1993 Royal Ascot by Heather (MacPherson) Sheehan. A true citizen of these hills, Heather was born in Mono Mills, currently lives near Mono Centre, and at the time she attended The Royal Ascot, raised thoroughbreds in Caledon. Though Heather and Queen Elizabeth did not quite rub shoulders, they did enjoy a pre-race paddock visit at the same time.
A WI Make-and-Take
This hat may look store-bought, but it isn’t. It was handmade by Jean Hutchison of West Garafraxa. In the early 1970s, Women’s Institute branches in Waldemar, Hereward and elsewhere in the hills ran workshops in hat making. Jean was a lifelong member of the Belwood WI, where she used blue synthetic felt and metallic silver braid to make this classy winter headpiece.
Although Jean Hutchison’s millinery skill is noteworthy, her reputation as a writer and amateur historian is far better known. She was born in Amaranth Township in 1910, and while still a student at Grand Valley Continuation School in the 1920s, was published for the first time – in The Globe and Mail. Over a busy lifetime she contributed regularly to agricultural weeklies but became best known as a compiler of local history. Friends say she proudly wore this hat until her death in 1997, which, sadly, happened just days before publication of her comprehensive and much-appreciated history of Wellington County.
Did James Reith Jr. of Grand Valley think about the 1889 Paris Exposition when he donned this hat? This model of the bowler won a grand prize for design at that world’s fair, which also introduced the Eiffel Tower. Notation of that prize, awarded to Christys’ London, is inscribed on the band of James’ hat. (Christys’ is still in business and bowlers are still among its best sellers. You can buy its fur Devon bowler for £180.)
In 1903, James Reith Sr. and his son James Jr. added a dry goods and millinery section to their grocery store on Grand Valley’s main street. This hat is one of many bowlers and other toppers that came to these hills through that store.
The bowler was developed in England in about 1849. Before it became a fashion piece, its purpose was to protect the heads of gamekeepers from low-hanging branches as they rode about making the upper classes more comfortable while hunting. Bowlers once enjoyed popularity among men about town, but they have survived for the most part as an item of headgear that suggests the wearer is unique or mildly eccentric.
Night and Day
In all of fashion, the nightcap may well be the headgear with the longest tenure and greatest universality, for it originated at the dawn of history and hung on until the early 20th century. Women of every class, age and income wore nightcaps for two very sensible reasons: warmth and protection from “critters,” essential in the days before modern hygiene and building techniques. A similar rationale applied to men’s nightcaps, which were similar in style. But records suggest that when wigs, which usually required a shaved head, fell out of fashion, men’s use of nightcaps faded quickly.
The nightcap shown above from the Erie Smith Schaefer collection is likely from an era of transition away from nightcaps, for its appearance reflects its function. The day cap, from the same collection, is clearly a fashion item. Wearing a separate fashionable cap during the day became popular in the Victorian era. It clarified class distinctions because dust caps, which were similar to night caps, were usually worn by women doing housework.
Erie Smith Schaefer (1886–1977) was a diligent and enthusiastic collector who lived her entire life in Bolton in a century home built by her father. Most of her collection, which contains far more than hats, can be seen at Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives.
There is a darkness to Maria White’s hat that goes deeper than its colour. Its history illustrates a sorrow visited upon many early settlers. As the name suggests, the cap was worn after a death, always by the woman of the family, for she was mandated by tradition to be the lead mourner.
Maria emigrated from Ireland with her husband and four children in about 1858. According to family lore, their original destination was Mono Township, but the comfort of having Catholic neighbours and a parish church in Colgan meant they took up land in Adjala. Only a few years after her arrival, Maria likely wore the cap for the first time at the death of her husband. Often called a “widow’s cap,” it was also used after the all-too-common death of children and, sadly, Maria had occasion to wear it for much of 1886. Diphtheria took three of her grandchildren within days of one another in January that year, and two of her adult children in May.
Queen Victoria’s near epic mourning of Prince Albert made mourning clothes a social obligation in the 19th century. For the wealthy, the hats were quite elaborate and this ritual, at its peak, even dictated a progression of styles over the mourning period, which usually lasted a year. For most, however, mourning caps were simple affairs, although Maria’s includes a ribbon that would have hung over her forehead, a touch that indicated the hat’s purpose.
Somewhat encouraging perhaps is that after more than 150 years, this hat is in remarkably good condition, suggesting that as her life went on, Maria didn’t have to wear it again.
With thanks to our three regional archives for preservin g our history – and to those who donated their treasures . Dufferin County Muse um & Archives — pp 76/ 7 7: Boater A92-0 09-1-1; cloche A20 4-0 05-1-1 T; militia hat X975-01-356. Pp 78/ 79: James Keith ’s top hat A95-287-B; Ascot hat A 215-451. Pp 80/81: Bowler A94-098; beanie , A 205-155-1. photos by Pete Paterson. Wellington County Museum & Archives — Pp 76/ 7 7: Military cap 2011.57.2. Pp 78/79: George Brought on’s stovepipe 1954.106.3; WI make -and -take 1997. 29.13. Peel Art Gallery , Museum & Archives — P 7 7: Ball cap 1998.023.0 01; sweater 1998.023.0 02. Pp 80/81: Nightcap 1978.012.0 42; daycap 1978.012.092; both also courtesy Albion-Bolton Historical Society . Private collection — Mourning cap . Photo by Pete Paterson.
What’s This Beanie’s Story?
This Shelburne High School beanie dates from 1938, many years before the school became Centre Dufferin District High School.
But who wore it – and why?
Was it a frosh cap?
A cheerleader’s cap?
What does the numeral 5 mean?
If you or a friend or family member can solve the mystery of the beanie, we’d love to hear from you. Comment at the end of this story or email [email protected].