Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, April 22, 2011

Men's Mid-19th Century Hat Boxes, A Quick Study of Two Distinct Versions

Mid-19th Century Men in Their Silk Top Hats
Daguerreotype Source Unknown
Are those great hats or what?
      After all my years in the Living History business, there are a few truisms I believe in and one is that your hat can make or break your impression. It's my feeling that when it comes to recreating historic dress, hats are serious fun and deserve special attention. In this post, I'm not going to talk that much about hats but rather my replication of two completely different hat boxes.These boxes are of the type that were intended to protect and store top hats, those ubiquitous tiles of civilization, and as such are an important part of hat lore.

    My interest in hat boxes started when I purchased a fur-felt top hat from Tim Bender of T.P.&H. Trading Co. Tim had worked with me to create a custom version based on measurements of a friend's original mid-19th Century fur-felt top hat. I had Tim leave off the edge binding and ribbon trim, so I could use some original French silk grosgrain ribbon that I had stashed away years before. I was really excited when the hat arrived but never expected the rush I experienced when the hat came out of the box. Tim really nailed it. It looks, feels and wears like an original felt top hat. I really loved being able to add my finishing touches but what it really deserved was a cool box to live in.
Original Mid-19th Century Silk Top Hat
and Its Wallpaper Covered Box
Photo Courtesy of Time Traveler's Antiques

My First Replica Hat Box
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     After considerable research I discovered that several different styles of hat boxes co-existed in the mid-19th Century. One type was shaped like the hat it protected and another was a large band box, sized big enough to fit the hat. I decided to recreate my version of the shaped variety as it seemed to suit my new Bender hat. My approach was to make a hat-shaped form of thin cardboard, that would be approximately 1/4" to 1/2" larger overall than the hat itself. Sounds easy enough, right?  It turned out that the biggest challenge was the shaping of the box's edges along the brim line to accomodate the hat and allow for a fitted lid. I solved the shaping problem by trial and error. I taped together long pieces of cardboard and wrapped them around the outside of the hat's brim. This way I could trace the curve of the brim onto the cardboard and create a pattern . The box brim assembly needed to be parallel to the main body sides or the eventual lid would bind and not lift off easily.

     When you make a period style cardboard box, the seams need to be strong. Some seams can be lapped and glued but some will butt together. After years of making various boxes, I've learned to take narrow strips of muslin and glue them over the butt joints as a re-enforcement. Some original boxes I've studied, have their seams sewn with a wide overcast stitch. The final steps on the box involved covering the outside in a sweet robin's egg blue paper and lining the inside of the box with reprinted period newspaper. I then added some narrow twill tape ties to secure the fitted lid. In my research I discovered that many original boxes were covered in amazing contemporary wallpaper, as you can see in the image. With all the period papers being reproduced today (Historic Wallpaper Resources), it's another option to consider. In the end, I was rewarded with a fitting home for a very special hat.

Original Mid-19th Century "Bandbox Style" Hat Box
Photo Courtesy Antique Associates
Replica Hat Box  #2
Photo Lindy Miller 2011
     Now, on to box #2. Years ago, while visiting Sturbridge Village with my wife, I fell in love with a straw top hat in their gift shop. It didn't help a bit that several of their costumed interpreters were wearing theirs that day. As you might have guessed, it came home with me but sat boxless for years. Well, if one top hat deserves a box, why not the other ? For this one, I chose the large bandbox style but it still had to be special and not just a big oval box. I decided to copy the wonderful hat image graphics that decorate the sides of many surviving boxes. The inspiration for this box came from several I had seen and the one original example that we own. When they are covered with wallpaper, the hat graphics appear to be overprinted with a woodblock and not part of the wallpaper's original design. After my box was completed and covered in appropriate reproduction wallpaper, I painted the hat graphic on both sides, in the style of a woodblock print. Note also that my box's lid is covered in a different print wallpaper, something you see quite often on originals.

     One little hint that I would like to share is that cardboard typically has a grain. If you take a piece and bend it from opposite directions, you will notice the difference immediately. This doesn't really matter with thinner cardboard but can mean the difference between a smooth bend and not-so-smooth with some thicker varietys. These were both fun projects and I would encourage others to craft their own versions. Period style cardboard boxes are wonderful objects and usually missing in recreated historical scenes. There's no reason for it as they are easier to make than you might think. Craft on !


  1. Well,a great big midwestern HELLO to Jim and Lindy !!
    I've not heard your names for sometime. And just this week have met 3 ladies that live in the SanJose,CA area and we plan to get together for a small workshop when I come out in June to spend time with my sister.
    I understand you are no longer at Columbia! :(
    Guess Ill read your blog and find out what you have been doing.....
    Your blog and this article on storing men's hats has come up in a FB group AUTHENTIC WITHOUT BEING ANNOYING :)
    take care...hope you are all having a great year
    Vivian Murphy

    1. Hey Vivian,
      You are right, we are no longer in Columbia trying to scrape out a living but still in the history biz, one way or another. Enjoy my blog and good luck in whatever you do.