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Home | Articles | Curator's Choice—Patriotism in Industry: A Lady's Riding Hat and Label

“THE AMERICAN ARTS ONLY WANT ENCOURAGEMENT” are the words that embolden a flowing ribbon held firmly in the beak of an American eagle. A Native American, replete with bow and arrow, feathered headdress, moccasins, and traditional attire, rests his left elbow on a grand plinth supporting a splendid female in classical robes who holds a pike, upon which dangles a phrygian, or “liberty,” hat. Opposite this group is an apparent hat maker who, with his legs casually crossed and leaning on his right elbow, holds aloft a large bicorne hat, presumably his own work. The plinth itself displays an oval surrounding an elegant top hat into which the name “DAVID WHIPPLE Manufacturer” has been inserted; another ribbon identifies the geographical location as “MARKET-ST. PROVIDENCE.”

This patriotic imagery and text supporting American industry are featured on the label inside a bleached beaver riding hat from the collection of Historic Deerfield. The label’s sentiment is emblematic of American manufacturers’ appeal to consumers in the early nineteenth century. While patriotic impetus to buy American goods was part of the culture of the new nation, the lure of English and French imports was strong. With the trade restrictions on imports initiated by the embargo (1807–1809), however, local manufacturers had, in essence, a captive market. Even so, American industry still needed support from consumers because of the economic hardships brought on by the trade wars.

It was at this pivotal time in American commerce that the Providence Hat Manufacturing Company was formed, seizing the opportunity to fill the void of goods entering the country and prove to local consumers that American products were equal or superior to imports. At their first meeting in January 1809, they wrote into their constitution,

The proprietors taking into consideration the present situation of affairs, which renders absolutely necessary that the MANUFACTURE OF HATS should be immediately very considerably extended, in order that the inhabitants of this country may be furnished with a supply of this article of necessity, convenience and elegance; and considering the great probability of a continuance, or a recurrence of our national embarrassments—but more especially relying on the great improvements they have made in the manufacture of this article, whereby they hope completely to break down the prejudice heretofore existing in favour of English hats, by the superiority of their own; and having met with every encouragement, since their establishment, from a generous and discerning publick, which they could wish....

Lady’s riding hat of bleached beaver with silk cord and ribbon trim, ca. 1810, Providence, RI.

There followed the decision to establish a subscription to raise 15,000 dollars, name and form a company, employ agents, and arrange everything from stockholders to bylaws.

Providence, Rhode Island, hat maker David Whipple (1774/5–1858), in business since 1803, was already making hats when the Providence Hat Manufacturing Company embraced the occupation. The evident need for the production of hats, Mr. Whipple’s patriotic advertising campaign, and the quality of the hats that he produced apparently contributed to his success, as it appears that he continued in his profession into the 1820s.1

This riding hat conforms stylistically to fashionable apparel of circa 1810. Tailored wool garments and styles that suited country living were in vogue at this time, closely following the banner of the English aristocracy. The color, diminutive size, and delicate silk ribbons and cord that hold the brim in place indicate the hat was made as female attire. Riding for ladies became both fashionable and chic, and suitable headgear was part of the ensemble. The soft underfur of the beaver was particularly suited to the production of hats, as it was lightweight, sturdy, and felted easily for molding in myriad forms. Displaying the quality and flair sought by style-conscious consumers, this hat also symbolized American industry and patriotism at a critical time in the country’s developing history.

Edward Maeder is the Curatorial Chair and Curator of Textiles at Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, Massachusetts. He was formerly the Curator of Textiles and Costumes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and most recently the Founding Director of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Curator’s Choice is a regular feature that highlights a museum object currently off-view, providing the rare opportunity for a behind-the-scenes curatorial tour.

  1. Whipple first appears in a bill for repairing two hats for Mr. Jonathan Tillinghast of Providence in May and July of 1803 (Rhode Island Historical Society, Tillinghast Papers, vol. 3, p. 170). The 1820 Rhode Island census reveals that the Whipple household included six males between the ages of 10 and 26, four of whom were likely apprentices or journeymen.

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