Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hat of the Week: 19th Century Firefighters Top Hat

So, I'm a real picture hoarder, I spend a lot of time online nabbing images of all kinds of great stuff, including pictures of hats, and I've decided to start a regular feature to share them.

Here's my first Hat of the Week!

This is a 19th century silk plush top hat. It's a fairly old one, not sure of the exact date but I'd say possibly mid-19th century, because of the straight-sided stovepipe shape, which was popular in the 1850s and 1860s.

Check out these photos of similarly shaped hats from the mid-19th century:

Silk plush is a kind of very flat velvet, using very fine silk threads for the pile, that was first developed during the early 19th century as a more affordable imitation of beaver felt. (A trick for telling the difference: most silk plush hats have lost a bit of their plush around the edges. If you can see cardboard through the plush or at the edges, or something that looks like skin, it's silk plush. That's the backing showing through the fabric. Felt, after all, just wears away to more felt underneath.) Plush soon became fashionable in its own right, though, and silk plush top hats were among the most commonly worn hats until the early 20th century. So, while the plush is very nice, that in itself isn't what makes this hat so special-

You'll notice that this hat has an unusual red hat band and a little metal badge. The badge is hard to read in this photo, but it's from an old volunteer fire association, so I'm guessing that this hat was part of a fireman's uniform from the time period. I've seen illustrations of top hats being worn with uniforms during the time, but had never seen a real one before.

Through the 19th century, there were no municipal fire departments. All the fire associations were 'volunteer', essentially free agents that kept their own fire houses and trucks and put out fires without government oversight or support. I'm sure that they were usually on the up and up, but in big urban centers they were notorious for looting houses as much as saving them. In New York it was common for more than one fire association to show up at a fire and then engage each other in a fistfight over who got to go into the house first to grab the best of the spoils, as the house burned away un-watered. They depicted this situation in a scene in Gangs of New York. The book that they made the movie from is really great, if you haven't read it you may want to pick it up. The author, Herbert Asbury, wrote true crime books about the 19th century underworld in a number of US cities, they're really good.

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