There’s no magic in this old top hat

Susan Caba

The Resale Evangelista

Why do I have a top hat? A vintage, in-perfect-condition man’s silk top hat?

Because A. J. Brewington, one of my favorite shopkeepers, often displayed top hats and bowlers and derbies on hat stands amongst her wares. They were cool. Very Magritte.

I’m an opportunistic shopper.Joey Musial reluctantly models my top hat.

She who hesitates in the resale world risks disappointment. I do not often come across top hats, derbies or bowlers. So, when Rung, a regular stop on my circuit of St. Louis resale shops, came up with three or four vintage top hats—one of them collapsible—I wrote a $100 check with no qualms.

The hat is pristine, with a leather band inside the rim and, in gilt lettering, the words “Dobbs, Fifth Avenue, New York.” The former owner’s initials are also inscribed in gold: “ERMcC.”

Mr. McC  apparently had quite a social life. His wardrobe of top hats included another well-worn silk chapeau, as well as a collapsible version. (To my credit, I did not consider buying the collapsible version. Okay, I did consider it–the hat was pretty cool–but ultimately I resisted, because it was more expensive.)

Let’s take this opportunity to pass along some Wikipedia trivia about top hats:

  • George Dunnage, a Middlesex hatter, crafted the first silk top hat in England, in 1793. Until then, top hats were generally made of beaver.
  • A French magician was the first on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat, in 1814—though there is some dispute about this factoid.
  • The collapsible top hat was patented in 1812. The ability to flatten the hat, then snap it open against the owner’s palm, made them popular and convenient for wearing to the opera.
  • John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. president to wear a top hat during his inauguration (but not his speech).
My mother gave me–and I still have–a thick silk scarf that belonged to my father, the kind of thing men once wore with tuxedos and top hats. My father was a pilot, not a tuxedo-and-top-hat kind of guy. When, I still wonder, did he wear this scarf? Matt Musial, sporting current casual formal look of T-shirt and top hat.

History, that’s one of the charms of foraging for vintage treasure. Who was Mr. McC? Where did he live? What did his wife wear on those occasions he was wearing his top hat?

I once salvaged a scrapbook of family photographs from a trash heap in Philadelphia. The black and white snapshots were tiny, with scalloped edges tucked into triangular photo corners. Flipping through the pages, I wondered about the middle-aged woman who looked–from her posture and position in the pictures–like the prosperous, never-married aunt of her extended family. Judging from the photos, I surmised the family had a house at the Jersey shore.The scrapbook was discarded in the clean-out of a Center City rowhouse.

The mid-century photos required an expensive camera and the processing of film–they long predated the digital, disposal age. Why didn’t this carefully compiled record of family history make the cut of mementos to be saved? Who decided to throw it away? Or were all the family members dead, making the album no longer relevant to any living person?

But I digress. Family photos is a topic for another day. Let me get back to the question at hand. Why did I buy the top hat?

Shall we pretend a higher intention?

Shall we say my top hat is an ironic allusion to the one-time strength of the American economy, a reference to rich Uncle Pennybags of the Monopoly game, or Uncle Sam? Could we say the hat now in my dining room is a token of respect for Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill? Or that I had a child’s inordinate love for Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat?

I could natter on about the construction of top hats, the various shapes, the fact that Worshipful Masters (who or whatever they are) are the only Freemasons entitled to wear a top hat. But there’s no escaping this fact: My top hat was an impulsive waste of money.

And for that reason, it’s gotta go!

Progress report: Yesterday I took the Sony TV in the basement–non-digital, not-even-flat-screen–to Goodwill, along with a bag of clothing.

2 thoughts on “There’s no magic in this old top hat

  1. Pingback: My Bad…. | Resale Evangelista

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