A tip of the straw hat to a Baltimore tradition

May 15 was the day that men brought out their straw hats

  • An array of straw hats — variously called boaters, butcher's, sailor's or skimmers — on display at the Charcol Club gallery, 853 Linden Ave.
An array of straw hats — variously called boaters,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Aubrey…)
May 08, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Eddie Jacobs, the venerable Light Street haberdasher, remembers when May 15 — Straw Hat Day in Baltimore — was a big deal.

"I'll never forget when I came home from the service. It was in January," said Jacobs, 71, whose father established the men's store, Eddie Jacobs, in 1939 that is known for its conservative suits and men's furnishings.

"He asked me how soon I could get to the store, and I said I'd take a shower and be there within an hour," Jacobs recalled.

"He then told me, 'Let your hair start growing and before you come into the store, drop by Southcomb's and buy a felt and a straw hat. I never want to see you without a hat.' In those days it was the mandatory finishing touch for a man when dressing," Jacobs said.

Sartorial standards in those days were far more rigid than they are today, when, let's face it, anything and everything goes.

I recall seeing a man dressed in a straw cowboy hat with ear muffs digging out his car on a Towson side street after one or the other of the February blizzards that swept the area.

"But on May 15, it had to be a straw hat," said Jacobs, who added that "June 1 to Sept. 1 was seersucker and cotton season."

The seasonal ritual that Jacobs was alluding to was Straw Hat Day. Overnight, men packed away the fedoras, derbies, homburgs and tweed caps, next to their heavy fall and winter suitings and overcoats, that would not be withdrawn until Sept. 15, which marked the end of the straw hat season.

After an eight-month slumber, out from hat boxes and darkened closets emerged jaunty straw boaters, sometimes called butcher's, sailor's or skimmers, and Panamas, with their center crease and thin black band that circled the hat's crown.

In turn, they became the crowning touch for the lightweight Palm Beach, linen and seersucker suits that men wore in an attempt to deal with Baltimore's infernal heat.

"Every American who observes Straw Hat Day on May 15 by putting his felt in 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," observed the old Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1953 article.

Straw hat-making had become a serious local industry by the 1870s, when three firms came to dominate the industry, which was clustered in West Baltimore.

The Brigham-Hopkins Co. was founded in 1875 in a building at Redwood and Paca streets. M.S. Levy & Co. Inc., which was originally established at Sharp and Lombard streets, later erected a large factory at Paca and Lombard streets. The third making up Baltimore's "Big Three" was the Townsend-Grace Co., which had been founded by S.C. Townsend and John W. Grace, also in the Paca-Lombard neighborhood.

It was M.S. Levy that introduced that Panama hat to Baltimore's fashionable gentlemen during the 1890s. Its name originated from the straw-hat bodies that traveled from the Pacific to the Atlantic by way of the Isthmus of Panama to Baltimore, where they were trimmed and blocked in the Levy factory's workrooms.

By 1890, more than 1,100 people were employed locally in hat making, which crested by the mid-1920s, when 2,300 workers produced 3 million straw hats annually.

"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," Lester Levy, grandson of M.S. Levy, said in a 1975 interview in The Baltimore Sun.

Through the years, Baltimore-made straw hats found favor with presidents, governors and actors as well as the guy on the street.

"Straw hats made in Baltimore have been worn by every American president since Grover Cleveland and by governors of all the states," the Sunday Sun Magazine reported 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 wardrobes of Broadway musical comedies from 'The Jazz Singer' in 1926 to 'South Pacific.'"

When it was suggested in 1924 that Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson issue a proclamation in observance of Straw Hat Day, he balked.

"Nothing doing in that line," Jackson 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."

A number of factors conspired to bring an end to Baltimore's straw hat factories.

" President [John F.] Kennedy didn't like wearing hats," said Jacobs, who observed that JFK's hatless ways were the impetus that gave American men the freedom to abandon the wearing of hats.

After a series of mergers, Men's Hats Inc., which had been the heir to Brigham-Hopkins and M.S. Levy, closed its doors for good in 1964 after delivering that season's hats.

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