When this film was made around 1920, hats were an essential item of everyday dress and few people ventured outside without one. Birth of a Hat: The Art and Mystery of Making Fur Felt Hats gives an insider’s tour of what was then the largest hat-making operation in the world, the John B. Stetson Company. The company’s founder and namesake John B. Stetson (1830-1906) was best known as the inventor of the cowboy hat — the wide-brimmed waterproof-felt “Boss of the Plains” classic introduced in 1865. As the legend goes, the young man went to Colorado for his health and there developed the prototype from beaver pelts collected on a hunting trip. A hatter by training, Stetson set up shop in Philadelphia and, with unerring marketing savvy, sent samples to merchants throughout the Southwest, demanding a minimum order of a dozen. He also branded his hats, embossing his name on every sweatband. The “Boss” became an overnight success.
Stetson expanded into other styles — bowlers, derbies, top hats, boaters, cavalry hats, and woolen caps. At its peak, the nine-acre Stetson facility in the Philadelphia outskirts annually processed 16 million animal pelts into felt and churned out 3.3 million hats. The factory employed 5,400 people and send product around the world. After the United States, the firm’s largest markets were Argentina, Mexico, Canada, and South Africa. In true Western fashion, each felt hat, although carefully styled, could be steamed and reshaped by its owner. Among the more famous customizers was Buster Keaton, who restyled Stetson’s fedora into his trademark porkpie hat.
The Stetson plant was a model of industrial efficiency, with men cutting, shaping, and dying the hats and women weaving straw, finishing, and making boxes. To command worker loyalty — and fight off unionization — the company offered a hospital, school, park, and housing as well as a panoply of employee services, from paid vacations, life insurance, and pension plans to Americanization classes, holiday turkeys, and baseball leagues. In the 1950s, as demand for headgear began to falter, production waned. The complex closed in 1971.
Birth of a Hat showcases the production-line methods that Stetson brought to the ancient craft of hatmaking. After a brief history of headgear through the ages, the film moves step by step through the modern process, showing how the felt is made, shaped, styled, and finished into a dress hat. The Stetson factory still relied at this time on a good deal of handwork but dramatically increased efficiency and delivered a consistently high-quality product.
While the company’s founder is said to have claimed, “there’s no advertisement equal to a well-pleased customer,” this film comes mighty close. Birth of a Hat was circulated to distributors and merchants to drum up sales and was also released as a longer two-reeler, giving more information about the raw materials, factory, and distribution. The updated video The Making of a Stetson Hat is still viewable on the firm’s website today.
(Many thanks to Jessica Getman, a graduate student of Caryl Flinn at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor, for her informative paper about this film.)
About the Preservation
Birth of a Hat was preserved under the direction of UCLA Film & Television Archive from a 35mm tinted nitrate print discovered in 2010 at the New Zealand Film Archive. The source material was scanned at a high resolution and output to 35mm polyester film stock at Colorlab. The work was funded through the support of a Save America’s Treasures Grant secured by the NFPF in 2011.
Like many American industrial giants, Stetson made films to sell its products and edited major titles for different markets. Birth of a Hat was the perennial favorite for Stetson. We know that some version screened at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and was promoted in a 1918 advertising flyer. Although the New Zealand copy carries no release date, we can date the film from around 1920, when the nitrate filmstock was manufactured.
The Philadelphia Historical Society gives a history of the Stetson plant site at www.philaplace.org/story/326/
- Stetson Launches First-Ever Online Store (virtual-strategy.com)
- TheFedoraStore.com and Stetson Brings Back a Hat from the 1940s (prweb.com)
- Newspaper Hat (spoonful.com)