Hatitude, Thanks to Grandpa

Buying a vintage hat with moth bites all over it sounds like a hair-brained idea. I’ve asked the seller on Etsy if she might lower her price and I’m hopeful she will.

This isn’t just any hat. It’s one crafted by D.B. Fisk and Company, described by the Made in Chicago Museum as “a sophisticated enterprise of the Victorian age.”

Growing up in the Chicago area during the 1950s, I knew little of the history of D.B. Fisk or my Grandpa’s career in the millinery business. I only knew the fun of shopping for a hat at Grandpa’s factory.

Delving into hat history, I discovered that only 18 years after David Brainerd Fisk founded his company, its stately building was destroyed in the vast Chicago fire of 1871. Less than two years later, Fisk—lauded for his leadership, taste, and merchandise sagacity—built a five-story factory, department store, and distribution center with offices of black walnut and ebony.

More than one fashion magazine described D.B. Fisk as the largest and finest millinery establishment in the world. Fisk even launched its own magazine called Monitor of Fashion. By 1898, Fisk had 465 employees, more than 300 of them female. The hatmakers then moved into a 13-story edifice in 1913.

Women typically washed their hair only once a month in those days, so hats were wardrobe essentials. Then along came the Depression, which didn’t go easy on men’s wallets or women’s pocketbooks for the likes of luxury hats. Shampoo was cheaper.

Fisk gave up its sumptuous quarters by 1932 (today it’s a hotel), made what was described as a humbling reorganization, and moved to one floor in a building down the street. The vice president became Fisk’s president. And that would be my cigar-smoking Grandpa Joe.

I long to have been born when D.B. Fisk was in its heyday. Still, I have rich memories of family pilgrimages to visit Gramps at his workplace in the Chicago Loop where I glimpsed the scaled-back hat factory in operation. From the time I was 6 or 8 years old, Grandpa would usher me in and leave me to chat with the women hatmakers who’d be giddy to have a young guest.

“It’s the boss’s granddaughter,” they’d loudly whisper among themselves each time I visited.

They would try hat after hat on me, mirror in hand, and offer their not-quite-unbiased opinions. I’d walk the aisle, stopping at pattern hats, tailored hats, straw hats, flowers to go on them and more. On each visit, I’d get to select just one—often a new Easter bonnet—to call mine.

I remember all types of materials, especially straw, lace, ribbon, ornaments, and other novelties. Many women sat at sewing machines and appeared to bring all the hat elements together with confidence and joy.

The creaky, hardwood floor and the scent of straw stuck with me over the years. As did Grandpa’s approval of my hat selection when I returned to the front office to model.

“Lookin’ good, Annie,” he’d say. He never disapproved.

Grandpa Joe had a playful side, particularly when he imitated TV and motion picture veteran Jimmy Durante. He’d dance with his shoulders scrunched up around his ears, and sing goofy Durante favorites like Inka Dinka Doo.

As he shuffled and dealt cards for family games of canasta, Gramps smoked imported cigars, which provoked me to frown until he carefully removed the paper ring from around a cigar, gently put it on my left-hand ring finger, chuckled out of the side of his mouth, and told me we were now engaged. I’d wear one of those rings until it fell apart.

Grandpa’s sense of humor? It didn’t matter that the log cabin he built on a lake in northern Wisconsin had indoor plumbing. He insisted on adding a matching log outhouse with a view of the lake, its own magazine rack, and his hand-scrawled signs. My favorite: “Lady, move over. We’re workin’ under here.”

Grandpa Joe retired and Fisk was out of business by the time I was a teenager. Yet when I scope out hat makers at art fairs or enter a shop like Byrnie Utz Hats, which closes in Seattle this fall after 84 years, my voice suddenly develops a kidlike squeak when I announce, “My Grandpa was a milliner.” I know they’ll comprehend the word milliner as I slip into reverie about Grandpa and the hat factory.

And, yep, I scored that Fisk hat on Etsy for a little less. So when you see a woman sporting a moth-bitten, cornflower blue cloche from the 1950s, feel free to shout out, “Is that a Fisk?!” The mad hatter wearing it will be smiling bigheadedly.

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 1990s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.

Credit goes to Chicagology.com and madeinchicagomuseum.com for the history lessons.

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