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.

| January 2008

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.