In Danbury, Conn., the place for pool supplies is Hat City. Thinking about getting some new ink? Check out Hat City Tattoo. The area also has an alehouse, a martial arts school, and a pawn shop all named Hat City.
And there’s a perfectly good reason for that: This small city of 80,000, about 50 miles northeast of Manhattan, once called itself the Hatting Capital of the World. By the 1880s, it was producing as many as 5 million hats per year. The town’s motto: “Danbury Crowns Them All.” You might say that Danbury built itself from the top down.
More than a century later, you may have to travel some distance to find a man or a woman wearing a head covering that’s not a baseball cap, a floppy beach hat, or a winter skull cap. But American history is never too distant, and a good dress hat is always in fashion. So we set off in search of some signs of an earlier era, when most Americans would no sooner show their uncovered pate in public than they would bare their knees and ankles.
Most accounts of hat-making credit Beacon, N.Y. — the Hudson Valley enclave that has become an art destination since the opening of Dia:Beacon in 2003 — as the country’s second-biggest center of historic hat production after Danbury. Just over 30 miles apart, the two communities form a kind of two-headed symbol of the fashion statement that was once top of mind.
Our first stop is the Danbury Museum & Historical Society, a cluster of buildings that includes the John Dodd Hat Shop, circa 1790. The shop, a modest, two-story Cape-style home, features the antique equipment that Dodd would have used to make his customer’s hats — a large, perforated copper cone for shrinking beaver or rabbit felt into rough hat bodies, stacks of wood blocks for shaping various styles. A recessed set of shelves display a restored scale model of the works at the McLachlan Hat Company, one of the city’s bigger manufacturers into the early 20th century.
As the industry grew, immigrants from all over the world arrived for the jobs. Retired hatters often told stories of newcomers reporting for duty on their first day in town with suitcases by their side, says Bridgid Guertin, the museum’s executive director. Danbury residents spoke 27 languages by the early 1900s, she says, and the legacy continues today: The local school system currently has students representing twice that many languages.
Local pride in hat history endures, says Guertin, who is pleased to note that the pews at St. Joseph Church still have hat clips. The new pro hockey franchise took the name the Danbury Hat Tricks, and the high school’s sports teams are called the Hatters. (Until recently, the school mascot paid tribute to “Mad Hatter” syndrome — the industry-wide mercury poisoning that locals sometimes called the “Danbury shakes.”)
A few years ago, officials unveiled a 14-foot bronze and steel monument called “Hat Maker” on the grounds of Danbury City Hall. And for the last several years, each first Tuesday in December the city celebrates Hat Day, when the townspeople are encouraged to wear their fedoras, derbies, and bonnets.
In Beacon, the locals briefly celebrated their own history with an annual Hat Parade, but that was short-lived. Unlike Danbury, there’s far less indication that this near-neighbor to the west was once a hub of hat-making.
At its height, though, Beacon claimed at least 50 hat factories along the Fishkill Creek, in an area known as Matteawan. One such business, Dutchess Hat Works, had a showroom in Manhattan. The Tioronda Hat Works, one of the city’s last surviving hat factories, had fallen into a state of disrepair by the time it burned and was razed in early 2017.
The Tioronda facility fell victim to the declining demand for hats and was repurposed as a textile mill in the 1940s. At the time, it was being operated under the name of the Merrimac Hat Company. Then considered the largest hat manufacturer in the country, Merrimac was headquartered in Amesbury, Mass. (Its big brick buildings along the Merrimack River are now the Hatter’s Point condominiums.)
On a sunny Sunday stroll through Beacon, a couple of ramblers are wearing straw trilbies in the farmers’ market. Inside Dickinson’s Antiques, a few wool fedoras and a straw boater hang among the Tiffany lamps and old brass fixtures.
Signs of a comeback may be scant, but they’re here if you’re looking. Just opened in an impressively refurbished wood-and-iron storefront, the Last Outpost Store sells guys’ stuff like leather goods, heavy metal jewelry, pocket knives, and coffee and barware — all the trappings in the life of the sort of man who might wear a hat.
Shelita Birchett Benash moved north of New York City with her husband, Richard, after 9/11, for the space and the peace of mind. Multimedia artists and connoisseurs of recycled materials, the Benashes have an eye-catching house just off Main Street in Beacon that they’ve decked out with an array of Manhattan street signs. They have plans to open a studio gallery soon.
Benash says she thinks the mid-century move away from hats as a wardrobe staple is in part cultural: “In African-American culture, hats are still big,” she says. “I contend with that all the time. At weddings, I’ll be the only one in a hat.”
When the gallery opens, she says, she may incorporate some kind of acknowledgment of Beacon’s hat-making past with pieces of wearable art.
“This is an environmental art project for us,” she says. “We love that we’re interacting and dialoguing with the community.”
Sometimes all it takes to start a conversation is a simple observation: Hey, nice hat.