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Decade that was the peak of hat quality?

Discussion in 'Hats' started by Levallois, Oct 1, 2008.

  1. Levallois

    Levallois Practically Family

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    All other things being equal is there a difference in the overall quality of the felt used to make hats in each of these decades? For example, is a Stetson Royal made in the 1940s a better quality than one made in the 50s? Thank you for your time.

    John
     
  2. HarpPlayerGene

    HarpPlayerGene I'll Lock Up

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    I'm interested in hearing what some of the more learned among us say about this one.

    One thing which may play a role in 'quality' is when certain practices and chemical practices went away. What I mean is that in the past, mercury was used in the felting process (caused nervous system damage - "Mad as a hatter" - to the professionals in the industry). The mercury, however, does seem to have produced a better feeling, more dense felt that could not be achieved in the same way after that process was banned.

    So, to learn when that process (and others?) went away may help answer your question.
     
  3. With the qualifier "in my experience/informed opinion":

    Stetson quality steadily declined from the early 1940s onwards. A very early Royal was almost as good as a 30s "Standard", but nowhere near a "Premium". 50s Stetsons - of the type that "everyman" wore - are junk compared to the 20s and 30s "Standard Quality" felt. They of course had premium levels of felt that were out of the reach of most earners. But in the 30s even the most basic hat was of a remarkable quality.

    I do not notice this difference between 30s, 40s and 50s Borsalinos or Mossants or Flechets. But then, the European hatters always made superior felt to the US hatters. Everyman Stetsons of any era are junk compared to everyman hats of any comparable era from the 3 European hatters noted.

    bk
     
  4. tonyb

    tonyb Vendor

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    The use of mercury in hat felting was banned in the U.S. in the late 1930s, if I'm correctly remembering what I've learned from presumably reliable sources. It was used for "carroting" the fur fibers -- raising the little barbs on the fiber shafts, which allowed them to better lock on to one another. The process imparted a orange-ish cast, hence the name.

    So, it would seem that any American-made felt of more recent (post '38 or so) vintage would have been made without the benefit of mercury. Anyone know when (or if) the European makers ceased using it? And to what did the manufacturers turn when they could no longer use mercury? Is there any other process that approximates what was lost?
     
  5. Lefty

    Lefty I'll Lock Up

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    If we have any chemists here, they might consider picking up a copy of this, which is apparently being reprinted. If there is some modern equivalent, it might help to answer what is being used, if anything, to replace mercury.
     
  6. HarpPlayerGene

    HarpPlayerGene I'll Lock Up

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    Hmmmm... this is getting good.

    I am totally fumbling around on instinct here (even a blind squirrel and all that rot) but it would seem there's a correlation between eliminating mercury in the U.S. manufacturing and the decline of American felt from the 30s onward.

    If the european felters continued with this process for decades beyond us Yanks then that may explain something.

    Also, I always thought that the term "carroting" referred to the microscopic shape that it imparted to the fur strands which, in turn, locked them more tightly and softly together. Don't know where I got that notion.
     
  7. tonyb

    tonyb Vendor

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    I'm also interested in learning some new (maybe) vocabulary to describe the differences in felts. You know, understand the vocabulary and you understand the concept.

    Maybe I'm wishing for too much. This stuff can be so, I dunno, nebulous. The look and feel of a felt is influenced by many factors, source material being among the most important, of course. But the manner in which that critter fur is handled once the beast has done his part certainly has a huge effect. And even once the fur is turned into a hat body, the hat finisher's care and skill (or lack thereof) can make a quite noticeable difference.

    I've heard hat aficionados speak of felt "density." OK, I kinda get that, although it does seem more than a bit subjective.
     
  8. tonyb

    tonyb Vendor

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    That may be right, Gene, for all I know. I only "know" what I've read on the subject. I've never done it (wasn't even around back then) or even seen photos of it. It certainly makes as much sense as any explanation I've heard.
     
  9. Brad Bowers

    Brad Bowers I'll Lock Up

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  10. You got it! These threads are always totally subjective. Hence my all-encompassing disclaimer.

    bk
     
  11. mineral

    mineral One of the Regulars

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    For general reference, here's a quick description (partly scientific and partly layman), cited from "Hats and the Fur Trade" by Crean in "The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science":

    "The early 18th century brought for hatters one of those technological discoveries which can revolutize an industry. The mercury carrot was to do for hatting what the Bessemer process did for steel. The outside of a fur fibre consists of "scales" of keratin, a protein substance not unlike a finger nail. Until there is some deterioration of the keratin along part of the surface structure of the rabbit and hare fibres they will not felt. This deterioration is achieved by breaking down the amino-acid molecular chains through the alteration of the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The original formula for the carroting solution consists of salts of mercury diluted in nitric acid. This solution, brushed on the pelts with a stiff brush, induced the required deterioration of the keratin."

    (Along those lines, I doubt that a good Hg free carroting solution cannot be found?)

    (As an interesting side note, from the same article, it says that beaver fur is traditionally preferred because it felts most easily and before carroting was the only fur they could use to make durable hats. The big effect of the carroting was that rabbit and hare felt became possible for use in hats.)
     
  12. Brad Bowers

    Brad Bowers I'll Lock Up

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    Great find, mineral!

    Brad
     
  13. Lefty

    Lefty I'll Lock Up

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    This is interesting, but it then raises the question of how rabbit and hare can still be felted without mercury. It would mean that there must be a replacement for mercury, not just that the removal of mercury from the felting process brought about lesser quality.
     
  14. johnnyphi

    johnnyphi Sponsoring Affiliate

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    Chiming In...

    The hats I discovered at Hirsch's ranged from mid-30's to late-60's.

    I can say without a doubt that my absolute favorite hat is 1930's store-label fedora that was in my stack of "iffy" hats. I found it after a long day at the warehouse, and I decided to keep it for myself.

    The pictures below show the hat before I had it cleaned/blocked and repaired the moth nibbles. There is absolutely ZERO indication of the manufacturer's name located anywhere on this hat. The liner and sweatband are both marked with the name of the store "B. Hirsch".

    We can assume that store-label hats were intended for the average man who didn't care about brand name, and these hats must have been sold for lower prices than the brand name hats.

    That is why I am totally blown away by the quality of felt on this hat. It is endlessly pliable, and it retains a pinch or crease, without leaving any wrinkles when I try a new style. My amature photos don't really show the swirl of the individual fibers, but... With one look at this hat, it becomes obvious why we've been taught to brush our hats in a counter-clockwise direction.

    The WWII-era Schobles are next on the quality list. (See Roadrunner's review in the Johnnyphi Hat Club. His Stetson Weekender is child's play compared to the Schoble.) And, Besdor will agree.

    The mid- to late-1940's Stetsons are incredible for their consistant quality, along with variations in weight and style. Imagine the fine-tuning required to mass produce felt hats, with consistant weight, color, finishing, etc. Here we are 60 years later, and there is not one single manufacturer that can consistantly mass-produce hats equal to 1940's Stetson quality, much less sell them at an equivilant price (inflation adjusted).

    1930's Store-Label Fedora, Manufacturer Unknown:
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
     
    Jhoff_1979 and Cornshucker77 like this.
  15. mineral

    mineral One of the Regulars

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    Although this is from a letter to the New York Times, it seems given the experience of the writer that it probably is correct:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C0DEEDA113BF930A15751C0A962958260

    "Because of manufacturers' research and pressure from hatters' unions, a substitute using hydrogen peroxide and acids was developed by a Swiss chemist. Mercury was no longer used after the 1930's."

    It's too bad the aforementioned article about the hat/fur trade didn't go further beyond the time when "L'Art de faire des chapeaux" was published (i.e. 1765, before the age of Napoleon).

    It's interesting to note also from the article that by 1765 the beaver fur had already gotten so expensive and rare that the French already weren't really making pure beaver hats and that even the rich at the time would mostly buy rabbit/hare fur hats (with beaver fur used at most as a veneer). I wonder when after 1765 that beaver fur got cheap and available enough again for us to see all the 100% beaver hats we now see? Or maybe it's that the vintage hats we all love and celebrate really don't have that much beaver fur within them?
     
  16. Jerekson

    Jerekson One Too Many

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    Personally I don't think that there can ever be a definitive comparison of decade quality, being as each different brand of hats had different methods for making many different types of felts. There's just too many variables to make any type of conclusion in that regard.

    As far as speculation goes however, I do find that felt "steadily declined" over the decades.
    I have a late 30's Knox that is my best felt. My late 40's Stetson is a close second to that one but easily more rough and stiff - it feels like the same felt but of a lower quality.
    Finally, I have a mid 50's Worth and a late 50's Penney that are both junk compared to the Knox.

    That being said, ANY hats pre-1965 (IMO), even the poorest quality ones, are super-duper premium ritzy by today's standards if you ask me. My 50's hats may be junk compared to my 30's hats, but I turn the comparison around to modern felts, all of a sudden they become the best hats in the world.

    Jer
     
  17. Lefty

    Lefty I'll Lock Up

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    This is good stuff. Thanks for posting it.
     
  18. Detective_Noir

    Detective_Noir One of the Regulars

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    what is the quality of a 1950s fedora

    I have a 1950s royal deluxe stetson stetsonian and I was wondering what would you rate its quality compared to todays hats and its successors (superb predecessors that succeed it in Quality) in the past
     
  19. Dinerman

    Dinerman Super Moderator Bartender

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    A '50s vintage Royal Deluxe is better than a modern Royal Deluxe. At the time, that was middle to high in their range of felt offerings.

    There have always been high and low quality felts, so the blanket statement of "older is better" doesn't hold up across the board. That is to say- there are modern custom hats that are of incredible quality, and there were bottom of the barrel wool felts in the '20s and '30s.
    But if you compare similar quality designations/relative price points over the years, earlier hats are generally of better quality.
     
    Cornshucker77 likes this.
  20. Detective_Noir

    Detective_Noir One of the Regulars

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    Thank you dinerman I have started collecting fedoras early 2010 until the time I've joined this site and have been wondering if the royal deluxes I have were of good quality back then well middle to high quality
     

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