Featured Stories


Hold your hat: The millineries of Southeast Portland

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE COLLECTION - This 1926 photo taken at the Eastside Lumber Mill shows the unique character and the different styles of hats chosen by the men of millwork.As early as the 1800’s, the Oregon country has played a major role in contributing to the fashion and style of hats and clothing of Western Europeans.

Matten, fox, otter, and mink hides were used in the manufacturing of English gentlemen’s coats and vests – while the top hat makers of France, Spain, and Italy were in need of the rich pelts for the latest style of men’s top hats.

When the woolier mammals were depleted from over-trapping and hunting in Russia’s sub arctic regions, the Northwest and Canada became the ideal spots for filling the needs of empty European warehouses.

Englishman George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, set about establishing a trading post in the Northwest. On March 19th, 1825, the flags of Fort Vancouver where raised, proclaiming to the nation that British sovereignty on the West Coast should not be challenged.

Native Americans, American mountain men, and French Canadian trappers were hired to hunt and provide an ample supply of pelts and hides. The beaver proved to be one of the most desirable of furs requested by the fashion designers and their clients.

The Hudson Bay Company controlled nearly 78% of the world’s fur trade, and the Oregon beaver was on the brink of becoming extinct. In one year alone, nearly 160,000 beaver skins were shipped to various markets and distributors. But thanks to a Chinese hatmaker, a visiting British dignitary, and a teenie weenie worm, the fate of the beaver and the history of hat manufacturing were completely changed.

According to Alyce Cornyn-Selby, curator at the nation’s largest Hat Museum, it was then that Englishman M. Bota, on a trip to China, was looking for a shop to repair his expensive but well-worn fur felt top hat. Upon entering a local hattery, he glimpsed a newer hat than his that the Chinese hatmaker said was made from the silk of worms. When he returned to his homeland, the silkworm top hat became the latest craze: Hat manufacturers had found a cheaper product to use, and the beaver was saved, later to be named the Oregon State Mammal.

Between 1840 and 1890 the fur trade drastically declined and the Hudson Bay Company was forced to close down, pack up, and move on further north into Canada. As the British exited, the Americans arrived, settling in communities on the south side of the Columbia River. Portland, Oregon City, and Milwaukie were still mere frontier towns vying for the merchant trade, and jockeying to see which one would become the major river port city in the northwest.

Hats here were few and far between. Pioneer women arriving from the Midwest wore homespun prairie bonnets made of fabric or straw, for convenience and ease instead of for fashion. The male Farmers and homesteaders desired hats made of leather, fur, felt, and straw, to keep the sun out of their eyes and the dust off the top of their foreheads.

Only the very successful merchants, prominent businessmen, politicians, and high society couples wore hats of any distinction – and they resided and conducted business only on the west side of the Willamette.

“A lot of who you were and what you did was communicated by what you wore on your head,” explains Mrs. Cornyn-Selby, who gives regular tours in the National Hat Museum, which is filled with over 160 years of women’s hats. “From fireman to soldier, from postal worker to prominent businessman, everyone knew by the look and style of your hat your classification in society or what you did, and if you couldn’t afford a hat you were considered the lowest of the low in society.”

At the start of the 20th Century, fashion was gaining ground in Portland. As the middle class began to emerge, and people had more time for leisure and more discretionary income, hats and glamorous dresses began appearing on the streets of Portland. Mrs. Cornyn-Selby comments that “A woman didn’t step outside without wearing a hat.”

It seemed that everyone wanted to be as fashionable and stylish as couples back on the east coast, and abroad in London and Paris. Portland wasn’t just a frontier town anymore, thanks especially to the Lewis and Clark World Exposition in 1905 – responsible for changing the reputation of Portland from a small bumpkin town to an elite destination for socialites.

With over one million visitors arriving from around the world for the Expo, the Rose City’s townspeople were about to witness fashion designs from every point on the globe. Hats, gloves, and gowns that they’d only seen in the Ladies Home Journal would be on display at every event in the city, including at the newly opened Oaks Amusement Park on the eastern shore of the Willamette River.

One of the hat hallmarks of this time was a wild variety of ladies’ hats that imitated birds. Feathers were an adornment typically used in the decorative theme of each hat, and over 400 feather shops were open in Paris alone, as revealed in the National Hat Museum’s guide.

In the following few years after the closure of the Portland’s 1905 World Exposition, the city had over twenty new millineries lining the avenues downtown, and the big Meier and Frank department store had a separate section where ladies could buy over a thousand different beads, feathers, pearls, shells, and other assorted objects with which to decorate their hats.

The wearing of a hat in that era was as important part of Portland’s everyday life. You didn’t leave your house without a hat on your head, and there was a good reason why. Mrs. Cornyn-Selby states that “It was considered poor hygiene to appear outside in public bare-headed.” That’s because lye soap, or a combination of egg whites and borax, were the only ways to wash your hair. Shampoo and easy hair cleaning products weren’t available until the 1930’s. You still had to visit a beauty shop to have your hair professionally washed and dried, since hand-held hair blowers were still decades away – only becoming available by the 1970’s.

Women in the Inner Southeast Portland area had few working opportunities outside the home in 1910. Single ladies could apply to become a teacher, while other occupations might include becoming a nurse or working on the assembly line of the Oregon Worsted Wool Company at Tacoma and 22nd Avenue. The majority of women still did not work outside the home.

However, now, the millinery business (the making of women’s hats) was beginning to provide women with the ability of becoming independent business owners. Mesdames Ballou and Holland announced in THE BEE the manufacturing of forms for ladies wishing to sew their own clothes.

Many ladies started making and selling hats and women’s clothing from the convenience of their own homes. Stay-at-home mothers, or ladies less-skilled in sewing, could save time and the cost of shopping downtown by ordering a dress locally on 13th Avenue. Miss Florence Harmon’s Millinery, the Needlecraft, the Sellwood Millinery, and the Bishop Brothers, offered a variety of scarves, hats, waistcoats, dress patterns, jabots, and corsets equal to the big department stores and specialty shops elsewhere.

The Bonnette Millinery advertised the M and K corset and the Labella corset made to order for portly women – satisfaction guaranteed!

Until the 1930’s, the design and size of new cars was predicated on the style of hats. Large-brimmed frilly hats adorned with feathers and decorations were a hazard when riding in open cars in the early 1910’s. Riding hats, gear, and accessories, were available but not very fashionable or popular for very long. Autos needed sufficient space inside the car for a man and his lady passenger to wear a hat without its being crushed.

The hat industry suffered severely during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. Few jobs, less money, and many unemployed people, led to a population that couldn’t afford the luxury of a fashionable hat. That outdated hat hanging in the hall closet had to suffice. Work hats for men and children were being mass-produced by machines, and hat makers and millenaries were no longer in great demand. Citizens could buy a cheap no-frills hat at Brills Haberdashery in Sellwood or Klappers, the corner store at Powell Boulevard and Milwaukie Avenue. Additionally, during the Great Depression, the country was in the mode of saving and recycling to support the war. Wearing expensive fashion was looked upon with disdain among the public (except for private socialite engagements).

The movie industry in Hollywood in the 1940’s revitalized fashion, and young ladies and debonair college men wanted to dress like, imitate, and resemble the latest popular actress or actor.

Humphrey Bogart in his classic Fedora hat, or Frank Sinatra pictured in his Trilby worn at an angle, were fashionable among men. For the ladies, Lucille Ball (a popular character actress in the movies before her huge TV success) or Marlene Dietrich were seen on the screen or in tabloids wearing the latest design by Lilly Dache.

The turban hat full of fruit and leaves that Carmen Miranda was famous for wearing never became quite an acceptable style for women, however. The Top hat is probably the most recognizable hat that people today have never worn. Abraham Lincoln is probably the most famous President associated with the top hat, and how many of us have seen the top hat worn on the heads of a coachman or carriage drivers in depiction of galas and gatherings of the rich and famous in the 1920’s! Other noteworthy top hat icons are all fictional: Uncle Sam, Mr. Peanut, and Frosty the Snowman. On the other hand, what movie star of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s performing in topcoat, cane, and tap shoes – like Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, or Gene Kelly – wouldn’t include the debonair black top hat?

With the 1950’s, teenagers and college students lost interest in wearing hats. Hair styles, make-up, and the newest hair products and perfumes were the in thing, and the latest fads in hats never reached their former popularity. It wouldn’t be until the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in England that hats have started an apparent resurgence.

Hats are becoming a common fashion today, and no matter what style or type of hat you prefer to wear - from Pork Pies to Bowlers, from Trilbys to Homburgs - you can enrich your knowledge of hats or just enjoy the historical background of over 1,000 hats at The Hat Museum. Sounds like it should be in the nation's capitol, but it isn’t – it’s right here in Inner Southeast, just north of Powell Boulevard, in Ladd's Addition!

However, you might want to save up a bit if you want to visit, and perhaps put together a group! The Hat Museum is located at 1928 S.E. Ladd Avenue at the Ladd-Reingold House; the phone number is 503/232-0433; and you can visit it online at: http://www.thehatmuseum.com. The catch is that the Hat Museum is not open to the general public – but private tours can be arranged, at $75.00 per tour, for a group of up to 6 – and reservations ARE required!