Friday, 19 July 2019

What Do a Peanut, a President, and a Prince Have in Common?

What men’s fashion item is so iconic that it has endured since the late 18th century as a symbol of taste and class? Worn by princes, like Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert and presidents like Abraham Lincoln? An item that helped drive the North American fur trade? Can be seen on characters like Mr. Moneybags of Monopoly fame, Uncle Sam, Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Peanut, and Tuxedo Mask? If you guessed the top hat, you’re right!

A magical find in the archives! This silk top hat complete with its own carrying case was hiding right under our noses the whole time.

AF 239
ARCAT Special Collections

ARCAT Staff Photo

We recently looked in a box that nobody who works at ARCAT had had the occasion to open before, and were thrilled to realize that it contained a top hat in beautiful condition complete with its own hat box. This treasure was owned by Fr. Felix Smyth, who lived from 1859-1937. There is some indication that the hat was produced in the early 20th century.  

In her book Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Beverly Chico describes the top hat as “a tall, stiff headpiece with a rolled and turned-up brim, formed in the shape of an upright cylinder with a closed, flat top. With curved or rounded sides, the vertical tube-like crown is usually a modified circle or oval to better fit the human head.” There can be some variation in the height and shape of the crown, but the overall style is distinctive as the proper topper for formal dress. 

Top hats began to be worn in the late 1700s in France and England and grew in popularity over the next few decades. At that time, their waterproof beaver fur construction made them both practical and desirable. Beaver hats were so popular that they helped turn beaver pelts into the main trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company in its early years. 

By the middle of the century, silk hats gained popularity as a lighter option, and their status as the go-to hat of the aristocracy and of the commoners alike was cemented when Prince Albert began wearing them. They became de rigueur at formal occasions as part of the expected attire for men. Presidents were inaugurated in them, they were worn to weddings and funerals, they were worn on the street. They were even worn here in Toronto by our own Captain Elmsley, who is noted for donating much of his time, money, and land to the early diocese:

Captain John Elmsley poses for a portrait with his top hat.

Photo courtesy of the General Archives of the Basilian Fathers


We believe the top hat in our collection is made with a material known as silk plush. The material is no longer in production; nobody even knows how to make it today! Vintage silk hats are prized by collectors for their stylish shine, even though they are high maintenance. They must be brushed in order to produce their lustrous sheen. A gentleman must have a shiny hat if he doesn't want to appear unkempt! The brim is trimmed with grosgrain ribbon and a felt band circles the crown.

You can see how shiny this hat is even though it probably hasn't been brushed in decades. Perhaps it's an opportunity to learn a new skill!

AF 239
ARCAT Special Collections

ARCAT Staff Photo

The hat in our collection was made by Lincoln, Bennett, & Co., which was a supplier to the royal family, in London and sold by S. Hyndman Tailor & Hosier in Londonderry.

AF 239
ARCAT Special Collections

ARCAT Staff Photo


The case was affixed with an Anchor Line steam ship label, but we were disappointed that the label wasn't filled out with any information about the hat's owner.

Anchor Line steamship label: Londonerrry to New York

AF 239

ARCAT Special Collections

ARCAT Staff Photo

All packed up and you're ready to hop across the pond to hob-nob with the high hats!

AF 239
ARCAT Special Collections

ARCAT Staff Photo

Though the popularity of the top hat waned in the first half of the 20th century with the rise of the fedora, top hats are still expected attire for gentlemen attending the Royal Ascot, and can be seen when men want to add a little something extra special to their outfit. Here in the archives, we think they're poised for a comeback!

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