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.
“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.
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 worte that, “During the 1870s, three concerns, which came to dominate local straw-hat making, were founded in Baltimore.”
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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