In the world of children’s literature, it’s been widely noted that the late Theodor Geisel — better known as Dr. Seuss — confined himself to a list of simple words to write his classic primer “The Cat in the Hat.” The book contains 236 different words, almost all of them of the easy-to-rhyme, one-syllable variety.
But Seuss’s own infatuation with hats (and hats of all stripes, not just the red and white of the Cat’s towering, floppy stovepipe) requires a much bigger descriptive vocabulary. The hats the author collected over the years are outlandish, exotic, and, when gathered together, could leave your mind “frightfully ga-fluppted.”
After a public debut last year at the New York Public Library, a selection of pieces from the private hat collection of Dr. Seuss is now on view at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton through March 9. Guests at an opening reception for “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!” March 1 were judged on who wore the most “Seussian” hat.
Seuss’s hat collection grew to around 500 pieces, says Bill Dreyer, curator of the Art of Dr. Seuss, which compiled the exhibition. Coincidentally, that’s the number in the title of Seuss’s second published children’s book, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” from 1938. There are about 158 hats remaining in the collection, says Dreyer. Twenty-six are on tour, along with various related Seuss artworks that detail how the fanciful hats inspired the author-illustrator.
Geisel, born and raised in Springfield and educated at Dartmouth, began collecting hats when he was in his 20s. A world traveler from the start, he brought home ceremonial and military headgear and other bonnets, helmets, and sombreros.
“Once his friends knew he was collecting hats, they started bringing them to him all the time,” says Rich Michelson, the gallery owner and himself a children’s book author.
Dr. Charles D. Cohen, a dentist in South Deerfield and the author of “The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss,” believes Geisel may have been inspired by an old game called Put the Hat on Uncle Wiggily, produced in 1919 by Milton Bradley, then headquartered in Springfield.
“Pictures from Ted’s childhood reveal him in a wide variety of headwear — cap, rain hat, Native American headdress, sombrero, and some that would be hard to name,” Cohen wrote in an e-mail.
Seuss’s widow, Audrey Geisel, now 92, still lives in the mountaintop home they shared overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, Calif. The library features a hidden entrance to an anteroom — “something out of a James Bond movie,” says Dreyer — that serves as the hat closet.
When Seuss, who died in 1991 at 87, was at a loss for a word or an idea while writing one of his books, he often rummaged in the hat closet for brainstorming. Elegant parties at the Seuss place typically revolved around guests being urged to have fun with the hats.
“You put perfectly ridiculous chapeaus on the heads of guests at a formal dinner party,” the widow Geisel has said, “and the evening takes care of itself.”
Among the hats on display in “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!” are a tall, chin-strapped helmet covered in fake white fur, a demure conical Asian field hat, and an authentic ceremonial African headdress, the latter apparently a particular favorite of the author’s.
Though many of the hats are as silly as a yuzz-a-ma-tuzz, some carry somber historical significance. While in Europe during World War II, Dr. Seuss acquired a Nazi field marshal’s hat and an Italian Fascist fez.
“There are certainly some that look like they’ve seen battle,” says Dreyer.
Of another piece, one of the humbler items in the collection, Seuss once told his stepdaughter, “Don’t ever let anybody throw this hat away.” The hat is from a concentration camp.
On the lighter side, the exhibition includes a replica of the Cat in the Hat’s sole article of clothing, other than his bow tie. Though unconfirmed, Dreyer says the Cat in the Hat hat was probably custom-made after Dr. Seuss conceived it on paper.
The Cat’s hat, of course, attracts the lion’s share of attention when visitors arrive at the exhibition.
“People come in like, ‘ta-da!’ ” says Dreyer.James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.