Beaver Felt Top Hat
Hat-making may have been the first colonial American ‘cottage industry’ to grow into a business that employed people in small factories. (This assumes that ship-building cannot be called a cottage industry.) Europeans played a large role in this American development.
Hats being worn by men in Europe became fashionable in the early 16th Century (and by women, soon thereafter). Hats became status symbols. The bigger and fancier was the thing worn on top of the head, the more status the wearer had. If someone didn’t wear a hat, then that someone was probably a pauper or slave and certainly someone who didn’t need to be greeted in public.
It was learned by hat-makers that water animals, mainly beaver, muskrats, and otters, had water-repellant furs that held up better in rainy and snowy weather. This meant that people who wore hats made from the fur of water animals were not forced to stay indoors during bad weather and could go about in public. This knowledge led to severe reduction in the beaver population of Europe by the beginning of the 17th Century (and also drove up the price of hats).
When European nations began founding colonies along the east coast of North America in the early 17th Century, it was discovered that beaver were abundant in the northern colonies and in Canada. This led to a fur trade with Indians and also to further colonization. The hat-makers in Europe wanted to buy pelts that hadn’t had the fur shaved from them because there was more money to be made in doing it themselves than in paying someone else to do it. (They claimed to do a better job, anyway.)
There were a few hat-makers among the colonials who settled in North America. They were aware there was money to be made in making felt from water animal pelts, which they knew how to do. The American colonial cottage industry of hat-making was born and soon grew. By the 1720s, more than 10,000 beaver hats were being made each year in New York and New England. This led to the Company of Felt-Makers in London proposing in 1731 and persuading Parliament in 1732 to pass the Hat Act, which forbade colonial exportation of hats (even to other colonies). It required a seven years' apprenticeship for hat-makers, excluded blacks from working as hat-makers (which prevented slave labor from being used), and limited each colonial manufacturer to two apprentices. Some colonial hatters got around this by labeling their hats as ‘London-made,’ while others simply shipped their products to France. Disobedience eventually caused the law to fall by the wayside.
Turning four pounds of beaver fur into one pound of felt was a lengthy process. Each pelt had to be ‘de-haired,’ which was shaving the fur off the hide. Dirt had to be removed from the shaved fur and tangles unsnarled. The finished result was pounded or kneaded into a mass and boiled. These steps were repeated several times, until the felt was thick enough that it did not tear when handled. (Sometimes dye was added to insure a uniform color.) After that, the felt was pulled over a cylindrical block and allowed to stiffen into shape. The brim of the hat was formed by pushing the block down onto a wooden surface, spreading the bottom part of the felt out from the hat, and fixing it to the wooden surface. The desired round or oval shape of the brim was then formed by trimming the outer edge of the felt. The final steps in the process were adding a band around the hat, just above the brim, and brushing the hat to get a shiny surface.
The water in which the fur was boiled had mercury added to it. This speeded up the process of making felt because the fur had to be boiled fewer times. However, hatters breathing toxic mercury fumes in poorly ventilated workrooms led to the hatters losing control over some muscles, to their stumbling, having slurred speech, and visibly twitching. If they kept at the job for a few years, they lost the power of concentration and became easily confused. The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ was not a literary flight of fancy. It was real description.