Beaver Hats to Hockey Pads: A Social History of Felt in Canada (redux)

2. Hats

Canadian classics, and how some indigenous folks stick it to the man…

The beaver hat remained all-the-rage through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, shape-shifting according to political change and public fancy. A growing scarcity of beaver contributed to a decline in trade by the 1830s. However, by this time in North America, other felt hats, usually made from rabbit fur or wool, were adopted for purpose and necessity. Soldiers and frontiersmen appropriated the Mexican-style wide-brimmed hat for travel by horseback and exposure to weather. In 1860, John B. Stetson banked on this demand and established what would become America’s largest hat manufacturer, famous for the cowboy hat. In 1919, Smithbilt hats was founded in Calgary giving Stetson a run for its money by providing a cowboy brand favoured by Western Canadians.

The campaign hat, a variation on the cowboy hat with a high crown pinched symmetrically at the four corners was adopted by the Northwest Mounted Police (now the RCMP) in the 1870s. The original pillbox hat, a British model, did not cut it on the Western frontier. The “Mountie” hat was made in the US by Stetson until the company opened a factory in Brockville, Ontario in 1930. In the 1970s Stetson divested from manufacturing, and Biltmore Hats in Guelph, Ontario acquired the license to make the famous hat to this day. However, they are no longer made in Canada. Biltmore, founded in 1917, went into receivership in the early 2000s, and moved South when it was bought by the hat giant Dorfman-Pacific in 2010. The brandname Biltmore remains, celebrating its centenary in Texas, USA. Meanwhile, felt no longer has monopoly over the headgear of the RCMP. In 1990, Sikhs claimed turbans as an alternative to the classic felt, and since 2016 Muslim women in the RCMP can wear the hijab.

Felt hats have been modified by the First Nations since the early days of trade. The people of the Plains revamped them by cutting off the brim. With disregard for the style of hat, they tossed the brims and kept the caps as useful supports for war bonnets. The felt caps are already shaped to the head and easy to cut and sew. This transformation prevails to this day, taking quiet revenge on a fashion trend that undermined indigenous cultures for centuries. KW

hats x 3

LEFT: “Boss of the Plains” cowboy hat, Stetson; CENTRE: Plains war bonnet, loan from Woodland Cultural Centre; RIGHT: R.C.M.P. “Mountie” hat, Biltmore Hats

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