Frank Owen and Baltimore’s straw hat boom

Sepia Saturday 411: Fourth in a series about my Welsh immigrant great grandfather Francis Hugh Owen, who married into the Irish Dempsey family in Baltimore, Maryland.

According to the 1900 U.S. census of Baltimore City, Baltimore, Maryland, my Welsh immigrant great grandfather Frank Owen worked as a clerk in a straw hat factory.

And this was his career for much of his life according to Frank’s listing in the Baltimore name-and-address city directories that predated phone books.

A sea of straw hats at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore (1912). The demand for straw hats in the hot, humid Mid-Atlantic region fueled a manufacturing boom in Baltimore that supported my great grandfather Frank Owen and his growing family.  By: The Library of Congress

“What kind of job is that?” I thought. “How could the manufacture of straw hats possibly provide a substantial enough income for my ancestor to raise a family on?”

Well, soon enough I discovered that straw hats were a very big deal in Baltimore during Frank’s working years.

Straw Hat Season

Anyone who has lived in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. knows that summers can be brutal — unbearably hot and maddeningly humid for months on end.

Now imagine a city like Baltimore with lots of people, traffic, large buildings retaining heat and, in the late 1800s, no air conditioning or sunscreen — and its not hard to see how the straw hat craze began there soon after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

A congressman and delegate shake hands at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore (1912). These two men, and a third behind them, wear the types of hats produced in the heyday of Baltimore’s straw hat boom. My ancestor Frank Owen worked as a clerk at a Baltimore straw hat factory.  By: The Library of Congress

Soon enough, May 15 became known as Straw Hat Day — opening an annual season that lasted until Sept. 15. Hot felt hats were packed away and out came lighter, well-ventilated headwear to stave off the sun’s penetrating rays (see photos here).

Turns out my great grandfather Frank Owen — who appears as a clerk, shipping clerk or hatter in federal censuses and city directories — was right in the thick of the Baltimore straw hat boom.

“But where exactly did he work?” I wondered.

The Big Three

In a 1997 Baltimore Sun article, reporter Fred Rasmussen wrote that, “During the 1870s, three concerns, which came to dominate local straw-hat making, were founded in Baltimore.”

They were Brigham-Hopkins Co., M.S. Levy and Townsend-Grace Co. — the big three in an industry that employed thousands of workers, according to Rasmussen:

The straw-hat business boomed from 1890, when 1,100 people were employed in hat making, until the mid-1920s, when more than 2,300 workers turned out 3 million straw hats annually. It was common for several generations of the same family to work in the same hat-making factory.

I wondered whether Frank’s home addresses in Baltimore city directories and censuses — along with the locations of the three largest hat manufacturers — might help me narrow down which firm he was employed by.

So I plotted them on an interactive map — which you will see in the next post.

Up next: Frank Owen’s Baltimore homes. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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5 thoughts on “Frank Owen and Baltimore’s straw hat boom”

  1. Straw hats were indeed big business back then. Both men and women wore them in several different styles. But straw hat rules were similar to the rules for when to wear white (between Easter and September) and they weren’t worn after dark – according to proper etiquette at least. So glad those antiquated rules are totally out of date anymore!

  2. So glad to learn about straw hats (men’s). ..and that your great grandfather was prosperous because of the fashion of wearing them. I remember decorating some generic large brimmed straw hats with silk flowers for some senior women to wear on outings at a nursing home about 30 years ago. I’ve got a few “gardening” straw hats around still…no flowers though.

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of hats, both men’s and women’s. I believe they carried signals about class that we no longer understand in 21st century America. A bit like the mythical symbolism of blue collar vs. white collar. What kind of jacket or waistcoat was appropriate to wear with a straw hat? Could you wear one in the evening when going to the theatre? Did you put it away in a closet after Labor Day in exchange for a wool trilby or homburg?

  4. Last week I was going to try to figure which bank my ancestor worked for by finding the one closest to home, but I decided that was just not a sure thing. I look forward to seeing how this works for you.

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