Monday, February 10, 2014

The Mad Hatter: Mystery Artifact Revealed

 We had a few guesses for this week's mystery artifact, with most participants guessing correctly that the object was used to stretch an article of clothing - but what exactly did it stretch?

Most of you correctly guessed that this object is a hat stretcher (not to be confused with a hat block, which is generally a solid wooden form used to shape the hat in the initially manufacturing process). 

Some hat stretchers take a very simple form, like the one above and this lovely example which is also from our collection.  This hat stretcher is turned wood, likely walnut, and the right curved side turns on the spindle to lengthen or shorten the stretch. 

Of course, no well-dressed gentleman of the last few hundred years would be seen without a very fine hat!  Most were made of natural materials which could include animal leathers, animal furs, wool, and/or felt:

Until the mid-20th century, felt was made using a process called "carroting" in which beaver or rabbit pelts were treated with diluted mercury before oven-drying and slicing away the skin, leaving the matted fur fibers behind (the edges would turn a carroty orange - a color referenced by the hair of Johnny Depp's "Mad Hatter" character in the recent Tim Burton adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland").  Bonus points to the readers who can tell us in the comments section below how this process led to the phrase "mad as a hatter"!

Many hat stretchers were wooden, as the wood helps to absorb any odors from the natural fibers and/or leather being used in the creation of the hat. Here is another interesting form that a hat stretcher could take: 

Although this mahogany hat stretcher has to be my favorite:

I have to confess, I can't quite figure out how it works, but it certainly looks fantastic!

More modern hat stretchers were made of shaped metal and allowed the hat to be stretched to a specified size, like the one below:

You can follow the links below to find two similar objects.  The first is from Museum Victoria in Australia:

The next link brings you to an interesting collaboration between The British Museum, the BBC, and the British public.  It seems to be a "wiki"-type webpage showcasing historic objects, and a description on the homepage reads: 
"This site uses objects to tell a history of the world. You’ll find 100 objects from the British Museum and hundreds more from museums and people across the UK."

Of course the site includes a hat stretcher -- probably more than one, in fact! -- although this one was electric (still in use and hand-cranked today, as the wiring is outdated):

The site is well worth exploring for its amazing list of objects ranging from neolithic hand axes through present-day space-age technology.  While the British Museum's 100 objects are beautiful and historic and rare, most fascinating to me are the objects contributed by the public (including our hat stretcher above).  It is lovely to see some of the deeply personal objects that contributors have shared.  It is equally touching to read about why that particular object holds an important place in their personal history and how they feel their individual stories fit into the larger history of the world.

"Victorian hat box and top hats" - read more at:

1 comment:

  1. "Mad as a hatter" references the mental side effects of mercury used in hat making.
    Firefly reference: "very fine hat" of course! Wish you'd worked "pretty cunning" in, too!