Saturday, July 16, 2016
Great things are in store for the website. I am completing a massive overhaul and redesign to make it responsive, i.e., make it so it will look good, be readable, and operate well on desktops, notebooks, tablets, phablets, and even smartphones. The new site should go live later this weekend. I'm using Adobe Muse for the design, which makes the site much more easily updated and appended. I will be posting new information as quickly as I can get it written and uploaded, so there should be much progress made the rest of this year.
Thanks for reading my blog these past six years.
Please join me at The Hatted Professor!
~The Hatted Professor
Friday, July 11, 2014
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Monday, July 29, 2013
I know you'd rather hear some interesting information about hat history, but I have something else of importance to tell you about today. I've been working on a new website that's related to this blog, and is an offshoot, in many ways. I realized early on that this blog, while allowing me to share information with you, didn't allow me to organize the information as I wanted to, in any kind of coherent way. For that I realized I needed a regular website, so I bought a domain and began building.
The site, The Hatted Professor, is still under construction, and I've migrated some of the information from this blog to there. I will also be offering new information, as you'll see by the menu options available. I will continue to use the blog, but more for the purposes for which blogs were intended, while also continuing the build The Hatted Professor into the most comprehensive repository of information on Crofut & Knapp and related companies on the Internet.
Perhaps the most exciting feature is the Employees List. Because of and through this blog, I've been contacted by many folks whose family members or ancestors worked for Crofut & Knapp, and they wanted to share their stories with me. The Employees List is a way for anyone to upload family stories of a former employee and share that information with the world. The workers in the factories and retail outlets were just as important to C&K history as James Knapp, John Cavanagh, or Robert A. Holmes, and their stories should be preserved as part of that legacy. It's a rudimentary database for now, but as it grows in time, it will also change into a much more sophisticated entity, and perhaps become the most important page on the site.
So, check it out, and let me know how I'm doing, what you like and don't like, and what improvements I can make. I've added Facebook Comments for you to leave comments there, and I've even got my own e-mail address for the site. All of this should facilitate better communication rather than through Facebook Messaging or the Comments on this blog.
Brad, The Hatted Professor
Monday, September 10, 2012
Crofut & Knapp reorganized in 1907, issuing 250,000 shares of preferred stock, and 250,000 shares of common stock, setting them on a firm financial footing. It would come at an opportune time. The Panic of 1907 triggered a recession that lasted until 1910, which served to produce a downward pressure on prices. At the same time, there was upward pressure on hat production costs. Strikes hit the C&K factory between 1907 and 1909 over issues such as the discontinuance of the use of the United Hatters of North America union label, and strikes for better wages. In 1907 hat manufacturers threatened to discontinue the use of the union label if UHNA did not agree to removing restrictions on the use of machinery in the factories, and to relax regulations on the employment of non-union boys. The union capitulated, but two years later the manufacturers removed it anyway. Workers at C&K walked out on strike when the company refused to give raises to the both the soft hat trimmers and stiff hat finishers. C&K brought in strikebreakers, particularly women for the trimming room, from Boston and Philadelphia, offering $12.00 per week plus room and board. The Associated Hat Manufacturers gathered in New York City on January 14, 1909, and voted to discontinue the use of the union label in all factories represented by the Association. This would affect seventy-five factories and up to 25,000 workers. Workers at affected factories in Danbury, New York, Orange, NJ, and Philadelphia immediately walked out upon hearing the news. Crofut & Knapp’s factory was the only one in South Norwalk to be a member of the Association, and their 700 men, women, and boy workers joined the strike, shutting down production.
On February 8, 1909 Crofut & Knapp kicked the United Hatters of North America to the curb with the decision to run a non-union shop, and invited all of its employees back. Fifteen employees were working in the factory on February 9, none of them union members. Company officers, including Philip N. Knapp and John Cavanagh were working on the factory floor to meet production orders. Other factories of the Associated Hat manufacturers also resumed business on that day as open shops. The strikes were costly to Crofut & Knapp in terms of lost business. Because of limited availability of product due to periodic factory shutdowns, at least two of C&K’s biggest accounts were lost. The shutdown in 1909 as a result of discontinuance of the union label, and the union along with it, lasted three months. High-end retailers Rogers, Peet & Company and Maurice Rothschild dropped their business with C&K. Both companies would eventually return as C&K customers, as evidenced by the many existing hats branded for their stores.
At the same time that American hat manufacturers were facing labor problems at home, they also faced increased competition from overseas hat manufacturers, whose lower labor costs translated into cheaper or “popular-price” hats in the United States. American manufacturers successfully lobbied Congress in 1908 to raise the tariff on imported hats, hoping to offset the lower prices. UHNA members worked fifty-hour weeks for a minimum of $18.00 per week, whereas the American manufacturers claimed that English workers, for example, made just over $8.00 per week, resulting in lower-priced imported hats stateside.  Tariffs on these lower-priced hats were included in the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909, though the hat manufacturers went back to Congress in 1921 to try to get tariffs raised on higher-priced hats coming in from Italian, Czech, Austrian, English, and French hat makers.
By the twentieth century, retailing of hats took two different paths to the consumer. The first and oldest method was through the hat department in the menswear section of general department stores. When a man would shop for a new suit of clothes in a department store, he could conveniently pick up a brand new hat for the upcoming season. Department stores represented the primary place for men to purchase their hats. A second retail source existed in the form of the hat store, devoted almost exclusively to men’s hats, though other masculine accoutrements might also be obtained there, such as umbrellas, gloves, and other leather goods. The hat store was the more recent of the two retail developments.
In either case, the retail establishment was within the purview of the jobbers, or wholesalers, who placed factories’ wares for sale through franchise agreements. It was in the cutting of this Gordian knot, with C&K replacing the middlemen and offering their hats to exclusive agents around the eastern half of the United States, that C&K made enemies, and ultimately made them the victors.
Jobbers had a tendency to depress demand for quality products, and Crofut & Knapp wanted to do nothing to compromise the quality of their product. Crofut & Knapp may have been the first hat manufacturer to throw off the jobbers’ yoke, but they weren’t alone in the midst of this retail upheaval. By 1910, many trades were throwing off the jobber’s yoke. Textiles, drugs, hardware, jewelry, technical products, even plumbing, were giving jobbers the old heave-ho.
The impetus for the creation of Dobbs & Co. ostensibly comes from the abandonment of the jobbers, or at least that was always John Cavanagh’s assertion. C&K wanted to cut the cord from the jobbers and sell directly to retailers. At the same time, they apparently had interest in creating their own store to exclusively retail the products from their factory. One version of Cavanagh’s telling of the Dobbs story has it that customers were unable to get C&K hats due to franchise restrictions.  It is entirely plausible that in telling the jobbers to get lost, C&K made enemies out of them and was unable to secure the franchise agreements they desired in New York City and other cities. However, another factor may be the strikes between 1907 and 1909. The Crofut & Knapp Company was a growing up-and-comer at the time, and may have been regarded as throwing their weight around against the Hatter’s Union. That may have translated into pro-union, anti-C&K sentiment in New York City and prohibited them from obtaining the franchise agreements. After all, C&K had long exclusively provided helmets to the police and fire departments in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. In the nineteenth century, Spellman’s was C&K’s retailer in New York City. John Spellman had contracts to supply the helmets to the New York City Police Department, so the C&K helmets probably came through Spellman’s. Because of this connection, Tammany Hall may have played a role in preventing the franchises.
Financial difficulties could have figured into the Dobbs, situation, with the costs of the strikes, occasional limited product availability, along with the loss of important accounts cutting into revenues. And, by continuing to put out a high-quality product, C&K would have been trying to maximize profits by cutting out the middlemen and creating their own retail outlet.
But why Dobbs & Co.? Why not create a Crofut & Knapp store, instead of a separate corporation to operate the retail store? This is a puzzling question with no easy answer. H. DeWitt Dobbs, the man who gave his name to the company, is a bit of an enigma. Very little information has come to light on him; even in Crofut & Knapp publications he is barely mentioned. Whereas John Cavanagh became a star among America’s hatters and received plenty of mention in the press, Dobbs received little at all.
Henry DeWitt Dobbs was born June 22, 1858, the same year as the Crofut & Knapp partnership. Although his name became synonymous with New York hats, the family name also has a prominent place in New York history for another reason, as his ancestors had founded Dobbs Ferry, NY. His uncle worked for Dunlap & Co., and that is probably how he came to work as a hatter. He worked for another hatter, Dunlap & Co., in New York City for twenty-eight years before being snatched away by John Cavanagh and Robert A. Holmes. At the time of his departure from Dunlap & Co. in July 1908, he was the manager of their Fifth Avenue outlet store. This would also be Dobbs’ position at the new store, though he was also president of Dobbs & Co. Besides having extensive experience running a retail hat shop, H. DeWitt Dobbs’ father, William H. Dobbs, had been one of the Sachems, or leaders, in Tammany Hall, and if DeWitt Dobbs had political connections, that may have been a deciding factor in his being hired. In any case, DeWitt Dobbs remained in the background when it came to publicity, almost as a silent figurehead, though I’m sure he was active in helping to run the company. DeWitt’s son, William H. Dobbs, also joined Dobbs & Co. shortly after World War I and remained with the company until 1932. H. DeWitt Dobbs died in either 1926 or 1927; his obscurity is such that even the year is not exactly known.
Dobbs & Co. was designed from the start to be a retail outlet for Crofut & Knapp products, including the $3.00 low-price Crofut & Knapp line, the $4.00 Knapp-Felt line, and the $6.00 Knapp-Felt De Luxe line. The shop opened on September 15, 1908 at 242 Fifth Avenue – there could be no better location with the same cachet for selling the high-quality C&K products than on “The Avenue.”
Dobbs & Co. and their hats, whether branded for Crofut & Knapp or Dobbs Fifth Avenue, were meant to appeal to a clientele of high-class buyers, who would appreciate not only the hats, but the shop on Fifth Avenue where they were sold. When it came to finding representatives throughout the country who would sell their hats, Dobbs & Co. wanted to only deal with the “most prominent and exclusive hatters of the various communities.” But how do you convince someone a thousand or more miles away to carry your hats? Robert A. Holmes and Dobbs & Co. set out to prove to their potential dealers that Dobbs means quality.
Their advertising campaign began by mailing a twelve-page book, about ten inches by thirteen inches in size, to all of their potential upscale dealers. These were no mere catalogs, however. Each book was printed on heavy, Italian, handmade paper, with a three-color cover. On the cover was the potential dealer’s name, hand-lettered by a master draftsman, along with the territory the representative would be given. Each book was personally signed by H. DeWitt Dobbs. Inside the book were four full-page illustrations with protective tissue between them, as was common in the day. Inside the front cover was a signed etching by artist Earl Horter of the front of the Dobbs & Co. store at 242 Fifth Avenue. Further illustrations featured the interior of the store, a picture of the Dobbs & Co. hat box, and an interior of a Dobbs hat showing how the Dobbs & Co. logo and the dealer’s own logo would be positioned in the crown. Each book was sent out by registered mail in two envelopes, with the inner envelope also being handmade Italian paper. The cost of each book to Dobbs & Co. was $6.00. It was designed specifically to impress, and impress it did. By 1912, 75 percent of the potential dealers who received the book in the mail signed up to be their city or territory’s exclusive Dobbs dealer.
Each dealer was also offered, for use in their storefront displays, a framed, signed print of an engraving by the artist Rudolph Ruzicka of that stretch of Fifth Avenue featuring the Dobbs & Co. store. A similar idea was applied to the new Dobbs Hat boxes, whose colorful artwork wrapping around the exterior of the box seamlessly showcased the block of Fifth Avenue between Twenty-Seventh and Twenty-Eighth Streets. The only visible sign on any building was, of course, that of Dobbs & Co. The boxes were the brainchild of Crofut & Knapp’s advertising genius, Robert A. Holmes, who realized the advertising potential of an attractive, colorful hat box. They were so successful that in 1915 Crofut & Knapp adopted similar colorful artwork for their own Knapp-Felt and C&K lines.
*Earnest Elmo Calkins, “Going After the Dealer with Atmosphere,” 7-8.
Crofut & Knapp’s competitors in this new, high-quality, retail arena were two well-established brands, Stetson and Knox. Though the John B. Stetson Company was younger than C&K by seven years, the brand had become a huge success with the customer for whom a hat was utilitarian, hence its big markets in the West and South, areas that C&K had yet to reach. Knox, on the other hand, held an air of class and distinction for the East Coast business executive, effectively cornering that market. C&K needed a niche they could exploit, and they found one in young men just starting to make their mark in the world. By targeting both their advertising and their product at this more sporting and youthful demographic from that of either Stetson or Knox, C&K hoped to open up this new market by appealing to young men’s growing sense of “fashion and sophistication.”
The new Dobbs Fifth Avenue store was an integral part of this plan, coupled with the mass merchandising campaign in New York City, and in any city that had a Dobbs agency. Dobbs Fifth Avenue was designed to “establish the Dobbs hat in the consciousness of the well-dressed New Yorker and all that Fifth Avenue means to the outside world…to impress the dealers throughout the country with this acceptance by these fashion dictators, and… to demonstrate to these dealers a set of radically different hat merchandising methods.”
If the phrase “Fashion is fleeting, style is forever,” applies to anyone, it has to be C&K and Dobbs Fifth Avenue. And yet, the whole idea behind the hats retailed at Dobbs & Co., both C&K and Dobbs, was for the company to be dictators of fashion. The hats at Dobbs & Co. were to be limited to three well-defined grades of quality and price. Initially intended as an outlet for Knapp-Felt hats, the Dobbs & Co. store also carried a house brand of hats, Dobbs Fifth Avenue. They were situated in the middle price of $5.00 between the Knapp-Felt line at $4.00 and Knapp-Felt De Luxe line at $6.00. Dobbs Fifth Avenue would become so wildly successful that it would eventually surpass any of Crofut & Knapp’s other brands in terms of sales.
Previous hat manufacturers offered a variety of models, which varied only slight from year to year. C&K and Dobbs went in a different direction, offering the consumer only three or four different models each year, but each year the model changed in some radical manner. Thus, C&K and Dobbs & Co. became dictators of fashion, setting the standard year after year for what was in style that season. And to their credit, the concept worked. Dobbs Fifth Avenue soon became the brand that young, swanky men everywhere wore, and whatever crown height, brim width or flange, or even style of bow Dobbs offered became the style to have or to emulate. Through their massive advertising and their impressive retail store, Dobbs had become a trendsetter, not just in New York City, but in any of a thousand cities across the country where a retail agency offered Dobbs Fifth Avenue hats for sale. Crofut & Knapp had found their niche.
I would offer one last comment on the success of Dobbs over its older, more established siblings, Crofut & Knapp and Knapp-Felt. Merchandising and fashion aside, I suspect the simplicity of a one-word brand name has a subconscious impact on consumers. Look at the majority of hat brands that enjoyed success in the twentieth century: Stetson, Knox, Cavanagh, Lee, Mallory, Champ, Adam, Schoble, Resistol, and Dobbs. Now look at automotive brands, or consumer electronic brands. The most successful have a simple, one-word name, usually from a founder of the company. One-word names are catchier, easy to remember. Knapp-Felt isn’t quite as catchy, and Crofut & Knapp far more complex. Anyone unfamiliar with the brand might stumble over the pronunciation of Crofut. I suspect some of the popularity of the Dobbs brand can be claimed from the simplicity of its name alone. After all, out of all of the Crofut & Knapp/Hat Corporation of America brands, Cavanagh, Knox, and Dobbs are still in mass production today, though Knox hats are exclusive to Levine Hats in St. Louis, Missouri. Arena Brands, through their subsidiary RHE Hatco, Inc., still manufacture these brands today in Garland, Texas, along with their flagship western brands, Stetson and Resistol. It’s a testament to the forethought of John Cavanagh, Robert A. Holmes, Philip N. Knapp, and H. DeWitt Dobbs, that the brand they created, Dobbs Fifth Avenue, has been in continual production since 1908.
The new Dobbs & Co. store, also commonly referred to as The Knapp-Felt Store, lest anyone should forget the name of the parent company, was very English in its design, featuring lots of mahogany showcases with doors made of leaded glass. What made the store most noteworthy, according to The Edison Monthly, was its modern electric lighting arranged in groups and rows, and was the “first store to be equipped with tungsten lamps placed at an angle.” Success breeds growth, and the store at 242 Fifth Avenue soon needed more space. By the end of 1914, Dobbs & Co. leased the larger building next door at 244 Fifth Avenue, and moved in sometime in early 1915.
*The C&K Book, 34.
Dobbs & Co. was about more than hats, though. From the beginning, they were a fledgling department store, or as the company proclaimed, a “Men’s Shop with Tailored Things for Women.” As the company continued to grow in both size and prestige, more shops were needed. To that end, Dobbs & Co. opened a new uptown showcase store at 620 Fifth Avenue on May 1, 1917, and shortly thereafter added connected space from neighboring buildings at 618 Fifth Avenue and 2 West Fiftieth, where two floors were devoted to women’s sports apparel. The second floor of 620 also served the women’s department. In the men’s section, one could purchase hats, hat cases, canes, gloves, neckties, shirts, coats, sportswear, and suits. Women could shop for hats, sportswear, and almost any other item of apparel. Dobbs and Co. had become a full-fledged department store, and the future looked bright indeed.
*The C&K Book, 34.
The fifth floor at 620 became the new salesroom and office for Crofut & Knapp’s hats. The entire floor was open and unpartitioned, with only an ornamental bronze railing separating the viewing room from the offices. Large windows along the front and back walls let in natural sunlight in which to view the hats’ true colors, and the walls were lined with mahogany showcases designed to replicate the look of street-side storefront windows. The middle of the room was occupied by tables where customers to sit down to examine their potential purposes. The room was well-lit, and the blue rugs throughout offered a “cheerful touch of color,” to the otherwise modest setting.
At some point between January and February of 1927, the store at 244 Fifth Avenue relocated to 324 Fifth Avenue. By 1931, Dobbs & Co. also had stores at 169 Broadway and 285 Madison Avenue. Along with the four New York City stores, two branches had been opened by 1924 on Long Island and Palm Beach.
John Cavanagh, always innovating, always seeking for more efficient ways of doing business, and always looking for new markets, combined all three in April 1935 when Dobbs inaugurated the first air shipment of American-made hats to South America with a flight of Dobbs Hats bound for Buenos Aires. Using the latest in technology, an autogiro carried the shipment from South Norwalk to Newark, where an Eastern Airlines airplane carried them to Miami, bound for a Pan Am Clipper seaplane heading to South America. John Cavanagh was enthusiastic that this fast transportation would open up new business opportunities for the company.
The success of the store was only marred a couple of times, first, by a fire in February 1925 that killed a fireman and forced the store to clearance off smoke-damaged goods. The second was when Dobbs & Co. and Crofut & Knapp were forced to relocate from 620 Fifth Avenue in 1928, as the building was to be demolished and later make way for what is now the British Empire Building at Rockefeller Center. It was this second event that was to almost prove the undoing of Dobbs & Co.
In January 1928, Dobbs & Co. signed a long-term lease for three buildings on the corner of Fifth Avenue at West Fifty-Seventh Street, site of the former Vanderbilt Chateau, with the combined properties to be known as the Dobbs Building. The buildings were designed by the firm of Buchman & Kahn, with interior design by the S. S. Silver Company. Opened on October 16, the eight-story, white marble buildings were impressive, with nineteen window showcases presenting Dobbs & Co.’s wares to the Avenue. The interior was designed to be just as awe-inspiring. The entrance hall was a showpiece of Italian Renaissance architecture, featuring both marble and Caen limestone from France, hand-painted ceilings, brilliantly lit with platinum and gold chandeliers and lights. A Persian Rug stretched over forty feet down floor of the entrance hall. Separate arched doors led to the men’s and women’s hat rooms, respectively, and between them on the wall hung a seventeenth-century Teniers tapestry, “The Wine Reapers.” The new store was truly upscale, but they paid dearly for it. Their annual rent for the building was $410,000, a princely sum even at today’s rates.
As if to flaunt their store as being worthy of the Avenue, Dobbs & Co. brought in the finest merchandise. In 1930, for example, their storefront showcased six Panama hats worth $1,000 apiece. Only thirteen Inca Indian weavers living in Monte Cristi, Ecuador, were said to be able to make hats of that quality. The hats were so fine they weighed between half an ounce to an ounce in weight, and took three months to weave. The New Yorker reckoned Dobbs set a record, as the most expensive Panama hats known to have previously been offered for sale in New York City were only $500, and purchased by the likes of Flo Ziegfeld, among others.
To say the store was expensive to operate is certainly an understatement. Operating expenses had to have been huge, with the lease alone amounting to more than $34,000 a month. To that end Dobbs & Co. borrowed money from the shareholder of their stock, Cavanagh-Dobbs, Inc. Cavanagh-Dobbs was the new holding corporation John Cavanagh formed in 1928 to consolidate Crofut & Knapp and Dobbs & Co. Between October 31, 1929, and October 31, 1930, Dobbs & Co. borrowed a total of $1,149,457.70, a particularly poor time to be borrowing money. Between their heavy expenses and the Great Depression, Dobbs & Co. was doomed. They were only able to pay back $80,702.43, so Cavanagh-Dobbs filed for voluntary bankruptcy reorganization of Dobbs & Co. on May 26, 1931. Cavanagh-Dobbs was claiming the owed balance of $1,206,279,27. Other creditors were owed almost $140,000, and of that, $100,000 was for merchandise, including C&K and Dobbs hats, as well as for all the clothing and accessories they sold. Their assets were listed at $1,218,287.25, including over $635,000 in fixtures and furniture. The receivers, Irving Trust Company, quickly held a liquidation sale at all of the Dobbs stores. Enthusiastic crowds thronged the stores to such an extent that the police were called in to keep order.
Rumors must have been flying regarding the financial soundness of all companies involved, prompting Cavanagh-Dobbs to release an official statement regarding the bankruptcy:
Dobbs & Co. didn’t remain down for long. Over a year later, on September 13, 1932, John Cavanagh personally opened a new Dobbs & Co. store at 711 Fifth Avenue. Fellow Fifth Avenue merchants and members of the Fifth Avenue Association chose the occasion to celebrate John Cavanagh and commemorate his forty years in the hat industry. The merchants presented Cavanagh with a silver plaque that read, “In recognition of his many contributions to the ancient and honorable craft of hatmaking – his leadership in the field of quality merchandising – this acknowledgment is made by his friends and associates on the occasion of the opening of the Dobbs shop at 711 Fifth Avenue.” Guests were treated to rides in a Whitney four-wheel coach, painted in dark blue, canary, and white, and drawn by a team of two fine black horses with canary ribbons tied around their tails.  This was the first appearance of the carriage to be associated with Dobbs, and it was to become a lasting icon for Dobbs Fifth Avenue hats. After the celebration, the coach and team were put to use delivering hats throughout New York City. It is unknown how long the coach was used for this service, but the image became so firmly associated with Dobbs and featured in their promotional advertisements and in their hats, that it is still in use today by the current Dobbs brand.
I do not yet know when the last Dobbs & Co. store closed. It might have occurred around the time the Hat Corporation of America brands were sold to Koracorp in 1972, or possibly 1970, with the closing of the Norwalk factory. The last store might not have even survived the Sixties. In any event, the famed retailer passed from Fifth Avenue and the American scene and into the annals of history. Looking back at Crofut & Knapp’s history, as we consider all the innovations of James H. Knapp, his son Philip N. Knapp, John Cavanagh, Robert A. Holmes, even the mysterious H. DeWitt Dobbs, one thing lives on in 2012, one-hundred and four years later: Dobbs Fifth Avenue hats can still be purchased at hat stores today. This brand, created as a new retailing angle in the crowded hat market of New York City, designed from the start to be a high-quality brand for high-class gentleman and sporting young up-and-comers, is undoubtedly their best, lasting legacy to America’s hatting industry, retailers, and hat wearers the world over. Long Live Dobbs!