Local hat factories were in their heyday Fashion: The well-dressed Baltimore man was seen in straw head wear from May 15 to Sept. 15.

Remember When

June 15, 1997|By FRED RASMUSSEN | FRED RASMUSSEN,SUN STAFF

It was one of those grand sartorial conventions, closely observed and generally coinciding in these latitudes with the arrival of rising temperatures and tropical humidity in May.

The seasonal ritual would find men packing away in cedar closets, mothballs and hatboxes their heavy winter suits and felt hats.

Overnight, suitings would change from the somber fashions of winter to the lighter-colored

Palm Beach, linen and seersucker suits of summer. Head wear suddenly became jaunty, as straw boaters or the more formal optimo Panamas with center crease and thin black band began appearing on local craniums.

In a more formal and less air-conditioned age, when a hat was considered de rigueur, the straw vas looked on as not only an eminently practical item but also a sure heat-beater for Baltimore's ferocious summers.

For some arbitrary reason, Baltimore's straw-hat season extended from May 15 to Sept. 15, when the switch back to felts was made.

"Every American man who observes Straw Hat Day on May 15 by putting his felt away with mothballs and reaching for a Panama, sailor or other straw is unconsciously paying tribute to a Baltimore industry that has been flourishing since the closing days of the Civil War," reported the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1953.

During the 1870s, three concerns, which came to dominate local straw-hat making, were founded in Baltimore.

The Brigham-Hopkins Co. was founded in 1875 at the corner of Redwood and Paca streets. M.S. Levy, founded at Sharp and Lombard streets, later erected a factory at Paca and Lombard streets. The third of Baltimore's "Big Three" was the Townsend-Grace Co., founded by S. C. Townsend and John W. Grace, which settled in the Paca-Lombard-Redwood Street area, the center of the city's hat-making industry.

It was M. S. Levy that introduced the Panama hat to Baltimoreans during the 1890s. The hat took its name from the straw-hat bodies that traveled from the Pacific to the Atlantic by way of the Isthmus of Panama and then to the M. S. Levy factory in Baltimore, where the hats were trimmed and blocked.

The straw-hat business boomed from 1890, when 1,100 people were employed in hat making, until the mid-1920s, when more than 2,300 workers turned out 3 million straw hats annually. It was common for several generations of the same family to work in the same hat-making factory.

"In those glorious days, a man's head covering was as necessary for him as a pair of pants. There were no bare heads, except on a few fanatics," said Lester Levy, grandson of M. S. Levy, in a 1975 interview in The Sun.

"Straw hats made in Baltimore have been worn by every American president since Grover Cleveland and by governors of all the states," said the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1953.

"They have been worn by the Prince of Wales, the King of Siam, Maurice Chevalier, Jack Dempsey, Max Baer, Gene Tunney, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and George Jessel, and have been in the wardrobes of Broadway musical comedies from 'The Jazz Singer' in 1926 to 'South Pacific.'"

One who was steadfast in refusing to issue a Straw Hat Day proclamation when it was suggested in 1924 was Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson.

"Nothing doing in that line," the mayor told The Sun. "Let people get out their straw hats now if they like or at any other time the straw hat will feel comfortable. I am going to get out my straw hat whenever I see fit."

In 1923, The Sun observed, "What is still lacking, and always has been, is an indication of the social significance of the straw hat. The sociological is reasonably clear. Men and women earn their living by providing this summertime necessity for the use of t public; but what about the public Is the straw hat never to be credited as a modifier of men's Op ions and a mollifier of tempers?"

The end for Baltimore's straw hat factories came after a series

mergers, and in 1964, after the had delivered that season's hat Men's Hats Inc., which had bee the heir to Brigham-Hopkins an M. S. Levy, closed for go.

Levy believed that because men were forced to weal hats as soldiers, they were determined to go hatless after World War II.

While not rebounding to the prewar popularity, hats have regained some fashion ground, perhaps because of warnings from the medical community about s and skin cancer.

According to Theresa Gratz, manager of Hats in the Belfry Harborplace, sales are brisk R boaters, Panamas and caps, which range from $10 to $138 for a topaz the-line Panama-style fedora.

As the light of summer begin to fade and autumn shadows be gin to grow long in September, to straw hat is irretrievably bout for the closet and winter slumber

A 1922 headline in The Sun sail "Caliph Custom Today Sound zTC Death Knell Of Old Straw Lid. Fifteenth of September Marks Tin When Cherished Summer Heal Gear Is Laid Away For Next Se, son And Forgotten."

The Evening Sun offered a suggestion for disposing of a straw "One [method] is to stealthily approach a fast moving streetcar and, after hurling the out-of-season object under the grinding wheels, depart hurriedly from the scene and leave the rest to the street cleaning department."

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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