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Beaver Top Hat

Top hat made from beaver felt and worn by Green Bay resident Morgan L. Martin, c. 1825.
(Museum object #1968.644)

In 1826, Morgan L. Martin, a lawyer by training, left his home in Martinsburg, New York for Detroit, Michigan, which, at the time, had fewer then 2000 residents. The 21 year old Martin set up a law practice there, but within a year, on the advice of his cousin James Duane Doty (a future governor of the Wisconsin Territory), moved to the even smaller town of Green Bay in what would eventually become Wisconsin. The Green Bay fur trading post had come into American hands just ten years earlier with the establishment of the United States Army's Fort Howard. Martin quickly involved himself in territorial politics and became one of the leading figures in the area, likely wearing this fashionable beaver felt top hat that he brought with him from New York.

Martin probably purchased this hat in Martinsburg or in nearby Clinton, where he attended Hamilton College. Orel Cook, the Rutland, Vermont hat manufacturer who made Martin's hat, had a large enough establishment to keep "quite a number of workmen in the business." Because of this, he probably had extra stock he could ship to dealers in New York. According to an 1886 Rutland County history, Cook began making hats before 1808 and continued to do so until around 1839.

Fashionable European and American men had been wearing beaver felt hats for centuries, but top hats were an early nineteenth century phenomenon. During Martin's lifetime the beaver population in New England and the Great Lakes area became so depleted that hat makers gave up making top hats of beaver felt and turned to silk plush as its replacement. Martin's hat, therefore, represents the end of the beaver hat era.

Cook made this hat out of beaver probably caught by Native Americans in the Great Lakes region possibly even in Wisconsin, and traded East. After receiving the beaver pelts, Cook would have brushed them with a solution of nitrate of mercury to help improve the felting process and then shaved the fur from the pelt. The fur would then be washed and carded before undergoing a fluffing and cleaning process.

Once cleaned, Cook would have dampened the fur, pressed it into a matted oval, and rolled it into a cone shape about 3 feet long. He would have then put the cone through the felting process, dampening it with warm water and folding and pressing it until it had shrunk to one half its original size. Finally, he would have pleated the felt cone into a flat circle and placed this disk over a wooden block to form a hat shape.

At this point the hat would have been a light tan color, which was dyed black or another color, if desired. To retain the shape, the hatter stiffened the hat with a glue mixture or shellac. Finally the brim was ironed, cut, and trimmed with ribbon. Cook finished this hat by placing a piece of white transparent silk in the crown stamped with "Orel Cook/Rutland, Vt."

Cook stopped making hats when he was in his early 60s, about the time beaver pelts became hard to obtain. We know that he lived into his early 80s, but his last twenty years may not have been easy for him. The mercury brushed on the beaver pelts became a vapor when the hatter ironed the felt during the finishing process. This vaporized mercury attacked the worker's nervous system and gave him the "hatter's shakes," which started in the eyelids, but made its way to the limbs and tongue giving those affected "a lurching gait" and "tangled tongue," and eventually affected his brain turning him into a "Mad Hatter" as portrayed by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.

There is a possibility that the beavers used by Cook to make Martin's hat traveled full circle. Growing up and being hunted in the Great Lakes region, sent to Vermont to be made into hats, and coming back home on Morgan Martin's head. Martin obviously treasured this hat and it may be the one he is holding in a portrait painted in 1856 (see image at left). After he passed away in 1887 his daughter Deborah, a Green Bay librarian, held onto it until 1910 when she offered the hat, along with a similar gray beaver one, to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

[Sources: McClellan, Mary Elizabeth. Felt, Silk & Straw Handmade Hats: Tools and Processes (Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1977); Henderson, Deborah. The Handmade Felt Hat (Yellow Springs, OH: Wild Goose Press, 2001); Smith, H.P. and W.S. Rann, History of Rutland County, Vermont (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason, 1886); Framed!, WHS Museum exhibition; Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1960).; Ginsburg, Madeleine. The Hat: Trends and Traditions (Hauppauge, NY: Barron's, 1990).]


Posted on March 13, 2008

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