Sunday, 11 October 2020

Hatbox heaven

(Thanks to my friend F for suggesting the title.)

A problem with hatmaking is that you then need to store the finished articles. Modern hatboxes (or at least, the ones I've seen) tend to come as flatpacks, are made from very flimsy card, and always seem absurdly expensive for what you get. So when a lot of 'assorted hatboxes' came up at the local auction, naturally I put in a bid - and got them. They are all sturdily constructed and as well as being useful, I've had great fun researching them.

Hatbox heaven indeed

Two of them are probably not actually hatboxes, but have clearly been pressed into use as such. Bernat Klein was a textile designer who established a business in the Scottish Borders. He seems to have worked mainly with tweed fabrics and yarn, and judging from this post, the box would originally have held wool. Spiers of Berkeley Square (the orange box) was a celebrity hairdresser, so this smaller box may have contained a hairpiece or haircare products (although hopefully not bottles of his egg yolk, rum and vinegar shampoo).

Nora Bradley is now a women's clothing shop in Belfast. It is described as 'long-established', but I haven't been able to work out if it is the same business as this shop in 1960s London. Scotts of Old Bond Street was set up in 1758, but in 1969 was taken over by the even older Lock & Co, founded in 1676. The Worth box is, sadly, from the London shop, not Paris.

By the standards of London's hatmakers, Christy's is a johnny-come-lately, having only been established in 1773. This splendid red box held a couple of surprises. First there was an actual hat, a very 1970s-looking felt by Frederick Fox, with an unwired brim and glued on (the horror!) motifs.

Lots of browns

Under the hat, I discovered that the box has an internal support; presumably to prevent ones topper from being shaken around in the box and having its brim damaged.

How to keep your hat in place

One of the boxes also contained this 'tebilized' label. Vogue Pattern Books from the 1950s contain lots of advertisements for tebilized fabrics; a treatment which made materials crease-resistant. I'm not sure why the label is in the shape of a hatbox, as Tootal were known for making fabric, ties and scarves, not hats.

Garment label in the shape of a hatbox

The remaining three hatboxes are all from Henry Heath. The large box is very plain, but the text-heavy lid of one of the others, dated June 1936, states that Henry Heath had several shops in London.

That's a lot of information

There's more on the box side

The main shop was 105-109 Oxford Street. and the factory was behind it in the same building. And what a building it was. You can read all about it, and its unusual but appropriate statues, here. I tend to avoid Oxford Street when I'm in London, but when I'm finally able to go down there again, I'll definitely take a look.

The box even contains the hatbox maker's label inside.

Made by George Howard of Southwark

The other box is similar but altogether sturdier. Clearly Henry Heath didn't just sell his hats in his own shops, he supplied shops outside London as well.

A box which could safely be posted

A shop's label has been added to the box

Walker and Ling's shop in Milsom Street, Bath, is long gone, but the firm still exists in Weston-super-Mare. This particular hat was sent in March 1935 to an address in Yatton Keynell, a village about 14 miles from Bath.

Close-up of the label

On the subject of hats and travel, I've saved the best until last. Also in the auction lot was this beauty.

6" ruler for scale just visible in front of the lid

Side view

F still teases me about the fact that a few years ago I went to this exhibition about plywood, and even worse, enjoyed it! Among the exhibits were some plywood hatboxes - the ease with which plywood can be bent makes it an ideal material for making something this shape. So now I have my own plywood hatbox.

The pieces are held together with metal strips

Sadly, the interior label has been removed. But when I turned the box over, I found this on the base.

Wanted on voyage

Close-up of the label

Enough of the ship's name was visible for me to be able to look it up on a list of Cunard's vessels and identify it as RMS Berengaria. Originally the SS Imperator, the ship was launched in Germany in 1913, and given to Cunard as war reparations six years later. Cunard and the White Star Line merged in 1934, becoming Cunard White Star Limited, so this label must predate that.

From what I have been able to find out, Cunard's 'vacation specials' could have been one of two things. A combination of a reduction in U.S. immigration and the economic depression following the Wall Street Crash meant that passenger numbers for transatlantic crossings dropped considerably. The supply of liners far exceeded demand, and shipping companies turned to cruises as a way of filling their vessels. So this may have been a perfectly innocent holiday trip. However, at the same time, Prohibition meant that ships registered in America had to be 'dry' whereas those registered elsewhere could serve alcohol once they were out of U.S. territorial waters. By the 1930s the Berengaria was, despite various refits, looking rather old-fashioned compared to newer vessels, and seems to have been used for a number of these 'booze cruises'. Either way, I like to think of this hatbox as having had quite an exotic life.


  1. How wonderful! The labels and found objects inside the boxes give them such life. I have a few boxes, none nearly as nice. Thank you for sharing their history!
    Very best,
    Natalie across the pond in the
    Kentucky bluegrass

  2. Thank you Natalie! It was fascinating just how much information I could unearth.

  3. this was quite interesting thanks for sharing