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Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Hatter of Broadway

As a break from an ongoing project, I’m going to write about a man with a hat shop. To introduce him, I have to go back to a previous post about my ancestor John Andrews, in which he described a trip he and his sister Harriet took from their home in southern Indiana to New York and Connecticut to see relatives and the New York World’s Fair of 1853 [you can access that post here].

He says they came “to New York, and Brooklyn, where we met for the first time some of our cousins, Mrs. Mary Taylor and her sister Miss Harriet Osborn. They were sisters of A.S. Osborn who had come west some years before” –and then they had gone with Harriet Osborne to Connecticut where all their older relatives still lived. The Osborne sisters were the daughters of Julia Andrews, one of John’s father’s younger sisters.

Here’s where he introduces our hat man:
“Returning to New York and Brooklyn we were helped in sight-seeing by some of our business relatives, Mr. Taylor, Mary Osborne’s husband who had a hat store on Broadway, another cousin Andrews who dealt in clothing etc. also on Broadway, and Samuel Andrews who, although a graduate of Yale College, and the only one of my kindred that I heard of who did, drove a dray to support his family, and perhaps he was more successful than his brothers.” [In my previous post I added a note about the humble occupation of driving a dray, but I now wonder if John meant to stress that Samuel was the only one of his family who graduated from college?]

To get back to hat making and such subjects—I decided I needed to know the name of this hatter. I had looked for him in the past with no success, but people are doing more altruistic work than ever these days, despite what we read in the newspapers, and all around the world there are folks photographing, scanning, uploading, and online indexing historical records for the fun of it—not for any pecuniary advantage—which is why I found him this time I looked.

I got on Ancestry.com and asked the search engine to look for a man surnamed Taylor with a wife named Mary, living in the vicinity of New York City in 1850, who did something with hats for a living. Bingo! The New York State census of 1855 popped up with the family of Anson Taylor, a man who made and sold hats for a living, born in Connecticut with a wife named Mary who was also born in Connecticut, with a few little children and a sister named Harriet Osborn who was also born in Connecticut. They lived in Brooklyn. This was obviously our man.

Top hat and Panama hat styles
Did you know that the bowler hat was invented in 1849 by James Lock & Co. of London? Perhaps Anson Taylor was creating the new design for sale in his shop. Certainly he was making top hats of all kinds. Panama hats were probably originally created in Ecuador and became popular worldwide by being sold to the thousands of 1849 gold seekers passing through the Isthmus of Panama. Anson Taylor would have had Panama hats in his shop as well.

Butch Cassidy and his wild bunch all wearing bowler hats

Men’s smoking hats of that day were modeled on the Turkish fez, and were intended to keep the smoker’s head warm and incidentally to absorb most of the smell of the smoke so that the hair didn’t smell. Smoking hats were made of luxury fabric such as velvet and were richly embroidered and adorned with tassels.

Various examples of 19th-century smoking hats, courtesy of Google
Top hat of the style worn in the early 1850s;
this daguerreotype was made on Broadway and
maybe this young man bought his hat from Anson Taylor
An interesting thing about making hats of felt—the Mad Hatter’s disease was a dreadful reality. Especially in the mid-19th century, immigrants and other workers made hats in close quarters with little ventilation and inadequate drainage, so that they were ripe for mercury poisoning during the felt-making process that released mercury vapor into the air. One of the major symptoms of the disease was tremors in the hands, eyelids, lips, and tongue, which were all dismissed as signs that the worker was addicted to intoxicating liquor.
Felt hat making processes

Could Mr. Anson Taylor have operated one of these unhygienic workshops in the back of his store or somewhere nearby? At the time it would have been seen as normal working conditions and practices to have such a setup.

It is very probable that Anson Taylor was not physically making the hats himself. He left his Broadway shop at night and went home to Brooklyn, where Mary and the children, his sister-in-law Harriet, and usually an Irish boarder or servant or both were living. (There was one Ellen McGonnagal from Dublin there in the household as a servant when the 1855 census was taken, and she was back again when the 1870 census was taken. Why she wasn’t there for the 1860 census is a little mystery.) At any rate, this was a well-to-do household, with all of the houses on the street worth from $4500 to $5000, located in the old Brooklyn Heights neighborhood running along the East River south of where the Brooklyn Bridge would be built beginning in 1869.

In 1853 when John and Harriet Andrews visited the Osbornes, over in New York Boss William M. Tweed was just coming into full power and starting his system of graft in the Tammany Hall district. As tourists, the Andrews siblings wouldn’t have come into contact with any of the corruption of the city government, of course.

They would have appreciated the sights of the Trinity Church, the tallest structure in Manhattan at that time; the Church of the Holy Trinity with the first stained-glass windows to depict figures; perhaps 1 Hanover Square, which was the newly-opened site of the Hanover Bank (later to be the site of the New York Cotton Exchange and then the India House); and the big old round fort building at the Battery that was once known as Fort Clinton, but then was known as Castle Garden, a place of entertainment. The renowned soprano Jenny Lind had sung there a year or two before, and the notorious Lola Montez presented the infamous “tarantula dance” there the next year. They might also have visited Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, as it was a popular tourist place. Before Boss Tweed was buried there in the 1870s, no one who had been convicted of a crime, or even had been in jail, was allowed to be buried there. The cemetery’s popularity in the 1850s led directly to the competition to design and develop New York’s Central Park. Perhaps on a Sunday they attended Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn and heard the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, whom many considered to be the most famous speaker in America, preach a sermon against slavery. Scattered about the still-mostly agrarian area were homes, schools, and other buildings made famous by the American Revolution or by surviving from the earliest colonial days.

In addition, as John wrote, “While in New York a world’s fair was in progress. . . . in one building there was a great many things on exhibition that were new to me, interesting and useful. Typewriter a novelty and a wonder to most every one, sewing machines, and other household appliances, agricultural machinery in variety, such as plows, cultivators, mowing machines, reapers, etc.” The Fair buildings were built in what is now Bryant Park.
Lower Manhattan Island in the 1850s. Note the spire of Trinity Church. Brooklyn Heights is on the lower right.
On the lower left of the island is the round Castle Garden building.

It’s probably useful to think about what was not in New York yet in 1853. No skyscrapers. No Brooklyn Bridge, which was the first bridge over either one of New York’s rivers, as it was not yet planned. Central Park’s creation was just then being funded by the legislature, although winter ice skating was popular already on the lake there. Macy’s first store in New York City was still five years away from being started. The Metropolitan Museum of Art wouldn’t be started on Fifth Avenue until 1870. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was not built until 1910.

But our hat maker Anson Taylor and his family would have seen some of these changes as they continued to live there. One line in David McCullough’s famous book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge says that a Brooklyn hatter was among those who walked across the temporary wooden footbridge during the construction of the mammoth bridge. The hatter was one of those who unfortunately froze with fright midway across and had to be helped back (page 407). I hope that wasn’t Anson! The stereoscopic view below, taken in the late 1870s during construction, shows how scary that footbridge was.

The construction footbridge was used by quite a few intrepid people until a man had a seizure in the middle and nearly fell. After that, the construction foreman stopped issuing anybody a pass to go up. Besides, people were getting in the way of the building of the bridge.

Funny thing is, Anson disappears from the records of New York between 1860 and 1870. His wife and some of the children still live in the same house in Brooklyn in 1870, and then they too all disappear.

An Anson Taylor surfaces in Illinois in 1870, married to a much-younger Irish immigrant named Marianne Barrett originally from Dublin. They have two children, a 15-year-old boy named John (who might have belonged to Marianne from a previous relationship), and a little girl named Monica. I wondered if our Anson had been caught in an affair and divorced from Mary Osborne Taylor. It happened to many folks—but there is no telling here for certain.

I did discover that a lot of people online seem to be looking for an Anson Taylor born within the same 10-year period as our Anson, and all seeming to disappear from families where curiously, only one or two children were ever born, and always in the month of March. Maybe our Anson was a serial bigamist who took annual trips?! Little Monica was born in March . . .

Maybe he came down with Mad Hatter’s disease and could take it no longer and left.

Serious researchers, you’ll have to pardon my taking liberties with the gravity of the facts you seek. I actually seek facts too and try to identify my flights of fancy as such. Note to everyone: the preceding three paragraphs contain speculation about facts. Do not treat my “wonder” as truth! My apologies to all you who are literate enough to understand the difference, but these days explanation is safer than subtlety.

These days “facts” have become whatever suits the imagination. We are living in an age where fantasy is sliding into propaganda. By the way, I have a bridge to sell you, though I may be “talking through my hat.”

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