Flat Caps, Shop Caps and Panama Hats

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Hats were more varied – and wearers genteel – in a bygone era when wearing caps was a fact of life.

Welldressedyoungman.jpg

A Well-dressed young man in 1937. (From the 1937 Sears catalog.)

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I was sitting on my front porch one recent hot afternoon (this is being written in September), sipping a cool one and watching the world go by on Route 45, when I got to thinking. This dangerous exercise sometimes leads me to some weird trains of thought, and some strange ideas for columns, often with nothing whatsoever to do with "Rusty Iron."

It occurred to me that when I was a kid, it was always easy on summer Sunday mornings at church to tell which of the men in the congregation were farmers and which ones worked in town - as soon as they took off their hats. The farmer's necks, cheeks, jaws and noses were burned to a ruddy tan, while their foreheads and bald heads were dead white. The town guys were mostly white all over.

So, I got to thinking about hats. I know, no one wears hats anymore, although baseball-style caps are everywhere. Cowboy hats are popular west of the Mississippi, and are even affected by some of the cool dudes farther east.

When I was a kid, men almost always wore hats, and would have considered themselves half-dressed without one. Most of these hats were made of felt and had a 5-5/8-inch crown, the top of which was creased lengthwise with the sides dented in. Bands of varying widths surrounded the crown at its base and usually were of a darker color than the rest of the hat. The 2-1/2-inch wide "snap brim" could be worn turned up or down, although most men wore them up in the back and down in the front. Some young men turned one side up and the other down, giving them a decidedly rakish look.

My grandfather, like many others, had a stylish, natural color Panama hat for summer wear. These lightweight straws were shaped pretty much like the felt hats and were unlined so the head stayed cooler. The 1939 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog said their 95-cent Panama was "Styled for a man with young ideas. Cool, dapper, comfortable."

In those days, baseball caps were worn by baseball players. Sears advertised three among their baseball items: cotton for 17 cents; satin, 22 cents; and wool for 47 cents.

Many workmen (and a lot of boys) were partial to flat caps. The flat cap was made of cotton or wool cloth and sort of looked like a large, thick pancake draped over the top of one's head. There was a short visor over the forehead to which the front of the pancake was secured with a snap. The back of the pancake was propped up by the headband and was higher than the front. Photos of early race car drivers often showed them wearing a pair of goggles and a flat cap turned backwards. And today's kids think wearing a cap backwards is new.

Policemen, truck drivers, service station attendants and delivery men all wore uniforms and what was called a service cap. The service cap had a high crown, usually with an emblem of some kind at the front, held up by a wide, stiff headband, with a short, rounded and shiny visor at the front. Similar caps were sported by Harley-Davidson riders. Remember Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones? 

Many farmers wore a dilapidated old dress hat, no longer fit for church, in the winter, and a broad-brimmed straw hat in the summer, although my father and uncle wore "shop caps." Of course I wore a shop cap when I reached the age of 8 or 10, as I wanted to be "like Dad." Sears said these caps were "Sturdily made of WASHFAST cotton fabrics … Pleated high crown, cooler on the head. Ideal for railroad engineers, shop workers, men who want real head comfort on the job." Shop caps cost 17 cents, or 3 for 48 cents, and came in blue denim, gray covert or liberty stripe (alternating blue and white stripes).

Dad usually wore the liberty stripe version, limp after many washings, and pulled down over his head with any slack in the crown smoothed toward the back of his head. My Uncle Chuck was a dapper man, and his gray covert cap was always starched and pressed so the crown stood up.

I remember one cap I wore for a while when I was probably 13 or 14. It was the blue denim model to which I had pinned 15 or 20 metal buttons. These were round, tin buttons, an inch or two in diameter, upon which clever sayings had been printed. That cap probably weighed a couple of pounds.

One summer we were unloading hay bales in our old barn. I was on the truck tossing down bales when a bumblebee, which must have had a nest nearby, started buzzing around my head. I snatched off my cap (not the one with the buttons) and swung it wildly at the bee. The bee disappeared and I clapped the cap back on my head - with the bee inside! There was some frenzied slapping and waving and jumping up and down for a few minutes, as the trapped insect reacted as only an angry bee can.

As I got older, caps and hats were no longer "cool" and I started going bareheaded all the time.

Another thing about those long ago days: Men removed their hats when they entered a public building or someone's home, and most acknowledged meeting a lady by a tip of the hat, or at least by touching the brim. And no man would think of sitting down to eat while wearing a hat or cap.

Today, even in fancy restaurants, one sees several men sitting at the tables with their ball caps firmly clamped to their heads. I've seen photos of men getting married while wearing their favorite cowboy hat. Not long ago, I attended calling hours for a deceased friend and his son was standing by the casket wearing a ball cap!

Removing one's hat or cap used to be a sign of respect, but times change, along with social customs, and I guess we old-timers have to get used to those changes. After all, our parents managed to get through the 1950s and '60s while the younger generation (us) wasn't exactly following their social mores. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@copper.net