It’s no secret that JFK killed the hat business. If he didn't kill it, he certainly assaulted the hat wearing custom with blunt force trauma. And it never fully recovered. I shared with you that my father, in spite of JFK’s bare headed approach to most work weeks, never left the house without a hat.
But the three or four decades preceding JFK’s inauguration saw the hat as de rigueur and as necessary a coordinating consideration when suit buying as socks and neckwear was. Not surprisingly, Daddy was probably the recipient of hats as gifts on many occasions. Butcept my dad. Poor guy only received from me, for as many occasions as I can remember, one of two things…British Sterling cologne or more often than not, soap on a rope.
No wonder he was fairly indifferent about Christmas Eve gift openings or Father’s Day morning surprises. It was the same damn thing every year from me…soap on a rope. Gotta love marketing and frankly, the indifference manifest in the eyes of daddies when they saw another cake of olfactory extruding tallow embedded with a looped length of Aunt Tootie’s knitting yarn.
But let’s get back to hats. By the time I started working in my town’s trad haberdashery, the hat business was all but over. Mr. C. still carried a modest inventory of hats, most from Dobbs but a few Stetsons as well. And hat selection was and is I suppose a very personal thing. I shudder to think about sending LFG or most women for that matter, out to buy me a tie. I’m thinking the same was the case with buying daddy a hat for Christmas.
Apparel Arts showcased a solution for retailers. Knowing that a nice hat would make daddy happy but even happier if he picked it out, Dobbs, Stetson and other hat makers settled on the gift certificate option. But not just any gift certificate…a miniature hatbox and hat that daddy could open on gift day.
A piccolo maquette telling daddy that a hat was in store for him—in THE store for him, awaiting his perusal, approval and procurement. Clever no?
These little hat boxes and hats are routinely offered on eBay for fifteen to twenty bucks and almost always mis-characterized. “Salesmen sample hat with box” routinely headlines the eBay offering. While only catching the tail end of the hat salesman calling on the haberdashery era, I did witness the process. Dress hats, especially well made ones, can’t be offered for inventory consideration when presented in G.I. Joe miniature sizes. Hat salesmen lugged in examples of the real thing, in the real size, so that store owners and buyers could finger the genuine goods.
So daddy would open the little gift box and I suppose everyone would get a chuckle out of the miniature representation and then daddy a few days later would take the little certificate to the store for his topper.
And then of course, the shoe makers caught on as well.
But there were small scale salesman’s samples of other hats. In smaller sizes but not as attenuated as the little gift certificate contrivances. And the rationale for these smaller versions is a bit more obvious. Utilitarian straw toppers, sold mostly to farm co-ops, feed and seed and hardware stores didn’t need to be illuminated through full sized samples. Elegance need not be proven—utility; functionality and unit price were probably the buying criteria for the owner of the local feed and seed operation.
And this hat still intrigues and scares me. My father’s only brother—the one who did stay on the farm that’s been in our clan for over two hundred years, actually owned the local feed and seed/farm co-op. And I loved going in there as a little kid. In addition to all of the imaginable things that farmers would buy at a co-op, there were also offerings in my range.
Cheap Barlow pocket knives that hung on a cardboard punch out stand. Just pull one off and pay the minimal freight and it was yours. And the drink box was an ice cold marvel as well. Six and a half ounce cokes were suspended therein by their necks.
Drop your coins in and slide the drink to the left for drink box liberation and libation. Oh, but not till you poured a pack of Planters salted peanuts down the neck of your “baby Coke”.
And the straw hats hung on a line across the store too. None were small enough for my little crew cut head but I damn sure wanted one. But not just any one. I wanted the one that had the “sunglasses visor”.
That is until I saw the chain gang man with one on. Chain gangs in the late 1960’s south were probably as scary to a five year old kid as a carload of Klansmen was to anyone, black or white, old or young, in the 1950’s. The prisoners were literally chained together and they were wearing those striped uniforms. And my five year old eyes saw them. More than once.
I can see it as clearly today as I did back then. And the supervisor wore that hat. And he carried a shotgun and the whole damned troupe of prison labor lorded over by Mr. Sunglass Visor Straw Hat with his shotgun just terrified me.
My grandfather would try to explain that nobody was gonna hurt me. That Mr. Sunglass Visor Supervisor was only in my uncle’s store to get a crate of soft drinks for the prisoners and that his shotgun probably didn't even have shells in it. Mr. Sunglass Visor Supervisor was one of the good guys but he didn't act like it. His necessary “ok boys if you try to run, there won’t be enough time for you to feel the sudden tautness of your ankle chain ‘cause I’ll have buck shotted your ass by then” game face, I felt as a five year old, was meant for me too.
So if any of ya’lls cogitation or collaboration about what to ever get me—gift wise—includes as a candidate, the Sunglass Visor Straw Hat, please pass on it. I’ll be happy with soap-on-a-rope.