One common misconception about vintage hats concerns the type of fur used to make the felt. Perusing eBay, you will more often than not see sellers list hats as being made of either wool or beaver. And, just as often, they are made of neither. This is not necessarily the fault of the sellers, though. As a society, we are so far removed from the purchase and everyday use of hats that we seldom give it any thought. If we run into hats at the department store, they are made of wool, so we probably draw an assumption from that experience. As well, the notion that beaver makes the best hats permeates the perceptions of the general public, and any experience with this might come from shopping for a western hat, where beaver reigns supreme. Beaver felts tighter than rabbit and hare, making a more-durable fabric, and offers a fine finish, making it prized for an hard-wearing cowboy hat. But even today’s western hats don’t always feature beaver.
The quick answer to our question, then, is that the majority of felt hats manufactured during the twentieth century were made with a blend of rabbit and hare. Wool felt hats were available in much smaller quantities as very inexpensive hats (just as they are today), and beaver hats were available in smaller quantities as higher-end hats. Beaver was, and still is, much more expensive to acquire than rabbit and hare. Rabbit (aka coney) and hare were the standard for men’s hats, and they made felt that was durable and finished out nicely at an affordable price.
Remember, this was back in the day when American manufacturers pushed men to buy a new hat seasonally in Spring and Fall, and changing styles every year helped to encourage this behavior. Undoubtedly most men probably held onto their hats longer than that, but hats weren’t meant to last forever, and as a daily hat wearer, I can attest that hats take an incredible amount of abuse. Think about how often you have to buy a new pair of shoes, or have them resoled. I have numerous hats in daily rotation, so the abuse from heat, sweat, moisture, and dirt is spread out. Unless you moved in social circles where different hats were required for different modes of dress, most men in early the twentieth century had, at most, a warm weather hat and a cool weather hat. The middle part of the century probably saw men who were still wearing hats branch out into a few more options, such as a dressy soft hat and a casual soft hat, along with summer straws, maybe even different colors for different suits. Affordable hats were key to this success, and rabbit/hare nicely fit the bill.
Mid-priced hats might feature a blend of rabbit/hare with beaver, while the high-end ones could be pure beaver. For instance, in 1931, Cavanagh offered a pure belly beaver fur (the most desirable fur) snap-brim hat for $40 (the Cavanagh Forty), and pure beaver (not belly fur, though), Derbies for $20. By the mid-1950s, inflation meant that a beaver-blend hat from Hat Corporation of America, from either Cavanagh, Knox, Dobbs, or C&K, would sell for $50, and a pure beaver hat would set you back $100.
On a side note, in 1939 the United States government required that any percentage of wool (in hats or otherwise) had to be listed somewhere on the manufactured item. The majority of hats that survive today and are offered for sale in auctions, estate sales, and thrift stores, will date to post-1939, so you can usually be assured that your hat is not wool, providing the labels or sweatband haven’t been lost.
Nutria was an option that American hat manufacturers explored starting around 1900, one that felted tightly like beaver but could still offer a nice finish. It is still in limited use today. Crofut & Knapp offered nutria hats in Derbies and even top hats, and I would make a guess in soft hats, as well. They marked their hats if they were nutria. On the subject of top hats, most antique top hats you run across will be silk hats, not beaver. Again, this is a common misconception. Prior to the 1830s top hats were made from beaver, but the creation of hatter’s plush from silk in France changed the fashion forever. Silk was desirable because it could be polished to a greater sheen than beaver. By the twentieth century, silk hats were almost the only style of high hat made and sold, and these are the antiques you find for sale. There were exceptions, at least from Crofut & Knapp. I have a top hat made from Clear Argentine Nutria, and Cavanagh offered a Coachman’s top hat made from beaver, which makes sense, as a Coachman would be exposed to the weather, and beaver would hold up far better than silk. It was a very rough finish, however.
I’ll end this brief tutorial with a page from The C&K Book, from 1924, which describes the various types of fur Crofut & Knapp used in their hats.
~The Hatted Professor