Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Derby!

This fall marks the sesquicentennial (or 150th anniversary, for those of you who don’t prefer Latin) of the first American Derby. To honor this occasion, my first reports here will focus on Derbies, from their construction methods, to showcasing a few examples of the millions of Derbies produced by Crofut & Knapp during their existence. The story of the first American Derby and the rise of Crofut & Knapp as a manufacturing concern in Norwalk CT, begins with co-founder James H. Knapp.

James H. Knapp

The hatting industry in Norwalk, CT, predates Crofut & Knapp by a good many years, but in many ways, James H. Knapp was a pioneer hatter. His business started on a very small scale, as did many hat companies did, working with primitive equipment. Indeed, hand tools used to make hats today are little different than they were 200 years ago. As Knapp’s business grew, he expanded and modernized his factories. Knapp also recognized talent when he saw it, and promoted one of his best employees into positions where that young man would help grow the company far beyond what Knapp had probably ever dreamed of, and brought many new innovations to the company. But, we’ll save John Cavanagh’s story for another day.

James H. Knapp was born in New York City in 1832, a city that would become closely associated with his company’s best brands. He first entered the hat trade in Ridgefield, CT, in 1850 at the age of 18, starting his career as a sizer, someone who shrinks the felt hat bodies down to size. By 1857, he had gone into business for himself at South Norwalk, CT, working out of a little cow shed. He sized his felt bodies in a washtub, and then hauled them to a nearby creek to wash them after the dyeing process was complete.

Knapp had a brief partnership in the firm of Gillam, French & Knapp, and later just French & Knapp, but it did not last long. In 1858, he went into partnership with Andrew J. Crofut, of Danbury, CT, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Crofut was an expert in the stiffening of felt hats using shellac, and would come to vitally important in the company’s next business move. The firm of Crofut & Knapp existed as a partnership until Crofut’s death in 1893, at which time it was incorporated as the Crofut & Knapp Company.

Andrew J. Crofut

But, let us return now to the 1850s. Knapp had been experimenting with reproducing English “hard hats,” a highly-shellacked felt hat that was stiff enough to serve as a helmet of sorts. The prototype hat was originally produced by hatters Thomas and William Bowler in 1850 for a farmer named William Coke. It was meant to protect the heads of gamekeepers from low-hanging branches. The “Coke,” or “Bowler,” as it is more commonly known, became quite popular within a decade with the sportsmen and equestrian set in England, as it made for a good riding hat.

James Knapp produced the first American models of this British hat, and in the last half of 1860, when he was confident he had a winner on his hands, he attempted to sell them. In those days, most hats were sold through jobbing houses, or middlemen, in other words, and the firm used by Crofut & Knapp was Henderson & Bird, in New York City. Knapp took his hats to Henderson & Bird, who shopped them to a retailer on lower Broadway somewhere around Ninth Street. The retailer ordered three dozen of these hard hats, the order evenly divided between black and brown hats.

When Knapp raised the question of a name for the hat, an English clerk suggest “Derby,” because the hat was popular in England with equestrians, and because of the horse races of the same name. The story may be apocryphal, but it was passed down from James H. Knapp as happening this way, and we have no reason to doubt it in the absence of any other conflicting or concrete information.

In any event, the name “Derby” stuck, though it we do not pronounce it “Darby,” as they do in Britain. Crofut & Knapp produced the first Derby in America, and built their reputation on that hat style until branching out into other styles in the early twentieth century.

Keep in mind that the hat is known to this day as a Bowler in England, and a Derby here in America. While the two hats are essentially the same, there are some differences in the style of crown and brim that can be used to distinguish them. A future article will detail some of these differences.


C&K Derby advertisement from 1906

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