Derby Deconstruction The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby

A Discussion of the History and Construction Methods for Stiff Felt Hats

Before we begin our exploration of the Derby, let us consider its significance.

“Why?” you ask. “It’s just a funny hat that nobody wears anymore, not even bankers in England.”*

*This statement is, of course, wrong on two counts. First, any self-respecting English banker would wear a Bowler (made in England) rather than a Derby (made in America), and second, there ARE reports that some bankers in Great Britain do still wear Bowlers.

True, the Derby is rarely seen in public these days, yours truly and a few die-hard Derby fans notwithstanding. But look at photographs from the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, and what do you see? Derbies on nearly every male head, in most cases. The Derby was everywhere, the most ubiquitous piece of headwear in its day, a “day” that lasted seventy years, give or take. And somewhat paradoxically, it is the Derby’s very ubiquity that makes it very unique.

The Derby is perhaps the most democratic and egalitarian hat of all time. It was the first hat to be classless; that is, it transcended all social classes. In America, it became de rigueur business attire for the upper classes, but it didn’t stop there. The Derby was adopted by the burgeoning middle class in the late-nineteenth century, and eventually by the working class here in America. No matter your station in life, it was considered proper headwear for all men; financiers and bankers, factory owners and factory managers, shopkeepers and store clerks, railroad workers and miners, all were avid wearers of the Derby. The rest of your clothing might tell the story of your life, but the Derby marked you as one thing only – an American male. Any man could, and did, wear the Derby. Indeed, not just the symbol of any man, the Derby became the symbol of Everyman. It is not coincidence that early comic actors like Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin adopted the Derby as part of their costumes. These famous funny men represented Everyman, and no hat represented Everymen better than the Derby. If Matt Groening had been born a century earlier, Homer Simpson would regularly sport a Derby.

Why was the Derby so ubiquitous?

The Derby was a product and beneficiary of the Second Industrial Revolution. The hat industry as a whole benefited from this second wave of industrialization, which started around the mid-nineteenth century and lasted until World War I. As with most industries, hat factories made good use of the American System of Manufacturing, but division of labor, standardization of parts, and mechanization of production only went so far in hat-making. Many processes were still done by hand in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, and it wouldn’t be until later in the century that the remaining processes that could possibly be mechanized in hat production were turned over to skilled operators using machines. As we’ll see in the next installment, much of the work that went into Derbies was done by hand, much more so than in the soft felt hats that eventually supplanted them.

The upshot of all of this is that hat factories were able to turn out increasing quantities of higher-quality hats in a far shorter amount of time than had been possible before the mid-nineteenth century, when hat “factories” generally consisted of a master hatter and one or two apprentices. Hat prices were affordable, and any man who considered himself upwardly mobile, regardless of his current social standing, wanted a fine piece of headwear from these respected hat companies. In general, the Second Industrial Revolution lifted the wages and improved the living conditions of all workers across the social spectrum. Hat factories were successfully turning out thousands to tens of thousands of Derbies per month to meet the consumer demand for them.

This brings me to my final point on the significance of the Derby. The Derby was the first piece of headwear to meet the criteria of mass culture. Mass culture is, generally speaking, a single, almost monolithic consumption culture appealing to a population across the social and geographic spectrum. Prior to the evolution of mass, or popular, culture, culture was regional in nature – that is, people living in the Northeast had their own culture, people living in the South had their own culture, there was a Midwestern Culture, and a Western one, as well. These regional differences could probably be broken down further. There was also high culture, including such things as opera and classical music, art, ballet, and literature, all things in which the upper classes indulged their senses. Opposing it was low culture. Low culture appealed, in general, to the lower classes, and included such amusements as minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, dime novels, and (gasp!) jazz.

Mass culture evolved with the advent of mass forms of communication, from newspapers, to magazines, to film and radio, and finally, to television, all forms that distributed ideas of consumption to the masses. These communication technologies developed a national audience that transcended older regional differences and contributed to an increasing homogeneity in American life, a homogeneity that, far from being detrimental, helped to develop a sense of national identity. It didn’t matter if you were from New York or New Mexico, from Michigan or Mississippi, or just off the boat from Ireland or Italy, these technologies let you participate in a new mass culture that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and let you feel like you had something in common with everyone else.

In the case of the Derby, we’ve discussed how it was adopted across class lines. It was also adopted across regional lines and could be found nearly everywhere one traveled throughout America. There were probably more Derbies in the American West than there were John B. Stetson’s famous “Boss of the Plains” hat and its cousins. This ubiquity was accomplished without the technological achievements of film, radio, and television, which are usually most associated with mass culture.

This just leaves us with newspapers and magazines. It is no mere coincidence that the Derby reached the peak of its popularity around the turn of the century, at the same time that hat manufacturers began moving from regional advertising in newspapers to national advertising in magazines such a McClure’s, Collier’s Weekly, and The Saturday Evening Post, all magazines with a national reach. The growth that America’s hat manufacturers experienced in the early years of the twentieth century were due, in large part, to this move to national advertising. The Derby went right along with it as the standard hat of America, until it fell from favor around 1930. But that is another story.

Suffice it to say, the Derby was the first hat to participate in the nascent popular culture. Derbies were, to their period in history, as denim blue jeans are to our period of history - worn by all, from presidents to paupers, and nearly everyone in between. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to don my Derby and run to the library.

But, let us return now to the 1850s.  James H. Knapp, of the Connecticut firm Crofut & Knapp, had been experimenting with reproducing English “hard hats,” a highly-shellacked felt hat that was stiff enough to serve as a helmet of sorts. The prototype hat was originally produced by hatters Thomas and William Bowler in 1850 for a farmer named William Coke. It was meant to protect the heads of gamekeepers from low-hanging branches. The “Coke,” or “Bowler,” as it is more commonly known, became quite popular within a decade with the sportsmen and equestrian set in England, as it made for a good riding hat.

James Knapp produced the first American models of this British hat, and in the last half of 1860, when he was confident he had a winner on his hands, he attempted to sell them. In those days, most hats were sold through jobbing houses, or middlemen, in other words, and the firm used by Crofut & Knapp was Henderson & Bird, in New York City. Knapp took his hats to Henderson & Bird, who shopped them to a retailer on lower Broadway somewhere around Ninth Street. The retailer ordered three dozen of these hard hats, the order evenly divided between black and brown hats.

When Knapp raised the question of a name for the hat, an English clerk suggest “Derby,” because the hat was popular in England with equestrians, and because of the horse races of the same name. The story may be apocryphal, but it was passed down from James H. Knapp as happening this way, and we have no reason to doubt it in the absence of any other conflicting or concrete information.

In any event, the name “Derby” stuck, though it we do not pronounce it “Darby,” as they do in Britain. Crofut & Knapp produced the first Derby in America, and built their reputation on that hat style until branching out into other styles in the early twentieth century.  Keep in mind that the hat is known to this day as a Bowler in England, and a Derby here in America.

I'm endeavoring to describe the construction methods that were unique to Derbies, though some, such as the brim curling and binding methods, also apply to many Homburgs. It's not going to be a comprehensive discussion of hat making, as I'm hoping you have some knowledge of that.

Felt bodies for Derbies are crafted as with any other hat, but one important distinction is that they are impregnated with shellac after the felting process was complete, but before they are dyed. The shellac is what gives the Derby its stiffness. All hats, even soft felt ones, have a certain amount of shellac in them, but Derbies have more than any other.

Blocking the Hat

Originally, Derbies felt bodies, as with all hats, were stretched over wooden blocks that gave the crown the desired shape. Because of the copious amounts of shellac in the felt, the bodies were heated and then muscled down onto the block. Once done, the next step was to iron the crown to set the shape, and to pounce (or sand smooth) the surface to the required finish.

Derbies require a different block shape than a soft felt hat. For one thing, the crowns are not creased in any way, and so they don’t need to be taller to accommodate the crease. The height of the block is the height of the finished hat’s crown. For a soft felt hat, the block is taller than the finished crown height, to give enough felt for, say, a deep center crease, as was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Additionally, the profiles of the crowns will be different. There are different styles of crowns for Derbies, just as there are different styles of crowns for soft felt hats, and each one gives different results. In general, though, Derby blocks are easily distinguished from their shellac-deficient brethren.

Here are a couple of photos of hat blocks to give you some idea of the different profiles. They are different hat sizes, but just look at the height and profiles. The block on the left in each photo is a Derby block. It’s only five-inches tall, and has more rounded shoulders than the six-inch soft felt hat block on the right.


Left: Side view of hat blocks; Right: front view of hat blocks

Most manufacturers eventually switched to hydraulic presses to block their stiff hats. Crofut & Knapp, who once boasted about their hand-blocked Derbies and chided their competitors for using hydraulic presses, eventually switched to the presses as well. The bodies were heated in a gas or electric oven, and then placed upside down inside an iron mold in the shape of the crown. A rubber bladder was placed inside the crown and filled with cold water, which forced the sides of the crown up against the iron mold and gave the Derby its final crown shape.

C&K Postcard showing the Hydraulic Press

Rounding the Brim

Whereas most hat brims have a fixed brim width all the way around, Derbies require a wider brim on the sides than on the front. This allows the brim curler to give the brim a very short, perpendicular curl on the front, and a wider, taller, and more pronounced curl on the sides. To achieve this extra width on the sides, known as a dimensional brim, a rounding jack with special adjustments for Derbies is used. The knobs adjust the contact points so that the jack rides farther out on the sides from the crown than on the front. Derbies generally are 1/8" to 1/4" wider on the sides than the front.

The Business End of a Rounding Jack

Ironing the Brim

Once the brim is cut to the correct size, the brim break, the angle where the brim meets the crown, is set by ironing the brim on a set board. It’s a concave board that adds the proper curl to the flat portion of the brim. I don’t have a set board, but here is a drawing from Henry L. Ermatinger’s 1919 Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovating.

Shaping of the Brim on the Set Board

Making the Front and Rear Curls

The secret to a stylish Derby is in the brim curl, which, is properly done by hand by a master curler, an artiste extraordinaire.

The brim curl is called a D’Orsay curl. It can be open, as seen here in this Dobbs Derby, or ironed much flatter, more like an overwelt that isn’t sewn down.  D'Orsay curls are also used on stiff silk hats, better known as top hats.

The D'Orsay Curl

Derby curling was originally done by hand with specialized tools, but by the time of the 1958-59 Derby revival, this had changed. Between not having any expert curlers in the factories due to sparse sales, and also for the sake of the profit margin, the style of curl was changed to a very simple upright curl, the same as contemporary Homburgs. This could be done with a flange and greatly sped up the manufacturing process by not requiring the hand labor, but the classic sense of elegance was lost.

Cavanagh Derby from the 1958-59 Derby Revival (No D'Orsay Curl)

Another feature of the classic Derby that is missing from modern ones is the increasing curl from front to back. The curl in the front and back is about as minimal as it can get, perhaps 1/8" or 3/16", and is essentially perpendicular to the brim. As the curl progresses to the sides it increases in width and height, presenting an extremely streamlined looked long before Art Deco was born.

The Curled Brim

A Front-Rear Tolliker is used to create the narrow curl on, obviously, the front and rear of the brim. It's built very much like a tolliker that is used to set the brim break, but instead of being completely flat on the foot, it has a narrow V-groove cut into it, starting from the flat plane and deepening into the foot. This allows the curler to set the tight, narrow curl with ease.

The Front-Rear Tolliker and the Finished Front Curl

D’Orsay Curl

The curler uses a shackle to make the D'Orsay Curl on the sides. Different shackles can make different curls, which is why a combination curl is a handy tool to have.

Shackling the D'Orsay Curl

Sewing on the Binding

After the brim was curled, it went to the Trimming Room, where the ladies would sew on the sweatband, hatband, and bind the edge. Since the sweatband and hatband procedures are not dissimilar from soft felt hats, I won't go into them here. However, the binding is a bit different.

First, the edge binding is sewn into a loop of the proper circumference, as is true for any bound-edge hat. However, the first stitching is done with the ribbon inside out. In this photo, you can see the inside of the rear seam of binding. The ribbon is laying outside down against the brim, and it is stitched to the brim using a lock stitch, as with a stitch awl or sewing machine, sewing the bottom edge of the binding along the outer circumference of the brim. This way, the inner part of the binding is given a very strong stitch, and when the ribbon is folded back over the outside of the brim, the stitching is hidden from view.

Sewing the Binding

Installing the Wire Loop

Many early Derbies utilized a loop of wire along the inside of the curl to provide extra support for the brim.   Most men's hats didn't utilize wire in the brim, especially soft hats, but Derbies and some top hats are exceptions.  At this point, after the inside of the binding is stitched down, the wire loop is tucked into place, and the binding is ready to be wrapped around the outside of the brim.

The Wire Loop

Finishing the Binding

The outside of the binding is sewn using tiny hidden stitches spaced about an inch apart along the edge. These tiny stitches provide surprising strength while giving a very clean look to the binding. Again, this is something missing in today's machine-stitched brims.

Hidden Stitches Complete the Binding

And that, in a nutshell the size of a boxcar, is how you make a Derby.  Any questions?

Crofut & Knapp Derby (1906-1909)

Crofut & Knapp Advertisement, 1906

~The Hatted Professor

© 2016 J. Bradford Bowers


The History of Crofut & Knapp, Dobbs, and Cavanagh Hat Manufacturing

The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby
Derby Deconstruction

The Hatted Professor

Derby Deconstruction
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor

Derby Deconstruction
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor