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Hats Off to Tradition:A Look Inside America’s Oldest Hatmaker

This story originally appeared on the Gents Cafe Newsletter. You can subscribe here.


Amidst the symphony of drumming machinery and the whistling of steam blow-off valves at Bollman Hat Company, one can’t help but be drawn into the captivating world of hat-making. The essence of this craft lies not only in the final products, gracing the heads of stars the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, but in the tools of the trade themselves. These specialized instruments, some dating back to an era when most of us were yet to be, possess a unique allure.

Stepping onto the creaking factory floor, you’ll find yourself in the presence of wooden hat blocks, each bearing the marks of time and countless creations. The hand-carved molds, patinated and mended, serve as the heart and soul of each hat’s form. It’s within these blocks that the story of a Bollman hat begins, capturing the spirit of American craftsmanship that carries on through the generations.

The antique machines — and I mean antique literally — with their wear-polished brass trim glistening under the soft light that peaks through the steam, adds an unmistakable charm to the factory. From the steam presses that breathe life into brims to the Singer stitching machines that sew the final seams of the silk ribbon, these manufacturing relics of a bygone era work in harmony with the skilled hands of the makers, producing works of art. The unique soul of this machinery adds a layer of authenticity to every hat, a testament to this time-honoured practice.

Like many of the artisans I work with around the world, it’s about the totality of the process: the conception of the idea, the selection and curation of premium materials, bringing that idea into the world by working the material, the labour itself breathing the soul into the final item, and the reaction of the customer. It is no different at Bollman, where the importance of craftsmanship has been embodied since its foundation in 1868, where tools become not just instruments of creation but silent witnesses to a tradition of excellence.

The commitment to continuous improvement is evident in every corner of this factory. The antique machinery that was once cutting-edge, is contrasted by today’s high-tech machinery, an arrangement that I believe has occurred time and time again on this factory floor. Where traditional techniques have been adapted and improved upon, enhancing efficiency without compromising the essence of the craft, the inverse of the all-too-common tragedy of these storied companies, it’s a testament to the idea that tradition and innovation can coexist harmoniously without compromise, resulting in products that encapsulate history while meeting contemporary demand.

In the heart of Pennsylvania, where the bygone sounds of the American textile industry echo through the rolling Autumnal Appalachian foothills, Bollman Hat Company lives on, reminding us of the beauty found in honed craftsmanship and the tools that help bring it forth. It’s a testament to the timelessness of quality and the enduring allure of the “tools of the trade”. The beauty here is not only in the final product but in the very creation, a process that transcends generations and continues to captivate. Now, I reckon that’s something to tip your hat at.


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