Top hats, now mostly regarded as relics of a bygone era, nonetheless reigned as the be-all, end-all in formal headgear from the late 1700s through the early 1900s—an impressively long time in the fickle realm of fashion. While thanks in part to their iconic shape these hats may appear simple, their construction was anything but, demanding the highly practiced handiwork of experienced tradespeople.
Take, for example, the hat pictured here, from the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library. This particular topper was likely produced in Europe around 1900, and offered to American consumers by Boston retailer Collins & Fairbanks. The manufacturing process for such a hat started with the creation of an inner form made from cambric, a cheesecloth-like textile, which was bathed in shellac and then dried on racks in a heated room. Stiff but still moldable, the resulting material was shaped on a hat block and covered with silk plush, a material so expensive that only the most skilled artisan in the shop was allowed to cut it. Next the brim was cut, and curled just so, using a specialized tool and a few well-practiced flicks of the wrist. There was no room for error in this process: the final product had to have perfectly straight lines and, most magically of all, no visible seams. You can see step-by-step photos in this 1899 issue of the English Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine.
In the Masonic lodge, the Master wears a top hat to signify the authority of his office and to command respect. The height of a top hat’s crown, the curl of the brim, and the material used to form the hat have all changed repeatedly over the years to reflect prevailing fashion, but the meaning of this symbol in Freemasonry has stayed the same, as illustrated by the photograph below.
The hat featured here is one of many objects that will be displayed in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s upcoming exhibition “What’s in a Portrait?” This exhibition of paintings, prints, and photographs from the collection explores portraits and some of the signs, symbols, and objects in them that tell the viewer the subject belonged to a Masonic or fraternal group.
To keep in touch while the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library is closed due to the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts, please join us on Facebook, and check out our virtual exhibitions and our online collections. And, as always, we welcome your observations and ideas in the comments section below.
Gavin Macdonald,“How A Silk Hat Is Made.” The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, 1899, Vol. 2. 235-238. Retrieved from this Google Books page.