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- History of the Wood Hat -

History does not record the first wooden hat, or perhaps even the first wood hat turned on a lathe (just as history has failed to record the first creation of music, the first handwriting, the creation of fire or ice cream, or the invention of the wheel, etc.) but we do know that lathe-turned wood hats are not modern inventions as some contemporary turners have suggested. One of the first recorded accounts of a lathe-turned wood hat comes from an association between William Murdock (1754-1839), who is largely credited as the inventor of gas lighting, and Matthew Boulton (engineer and “father of the Industrial Revolution”) 1728-1809. Boulton and his partner, James Watt (of steam engine fame) were members of a group that met every month on the Monday closest to the full moon (presumably because it was easier to find one's way home when there was a bright moon to light the way.) They came to be known as the Lunar Men (see Jenny Uglow “The Lunar Men” Faber and Faber, pp 290-291 ISBN: 0 571 21610 2.) In addition to Boulton, Watt and Murdock, the group also included Erasmus Darwin (physician and grandfather of Charles Darwin), Josiah Wedgewood (potter and founder of Wedgewood china), Joseph Priestly (a chemist who isolated and discovered oxygen) and others.

William Murdock
William Murdock (1754-1839)
Early pioneer of wood hat turning

As a young boy, Murdock grew up in County Ayrshire in Scotland. In 1777 at the age of 23, he walked three hundred miles to Birmingham England to seek employment with the firm of Boulton and Watt. Upon arrival at Soho, he called at the Works and had an interview with Mr. Boulton. Murdock was uncomfortable and nervous in this situation and was seeking something to do with his hands. He was reported to have been twirling his hat in his hands; some accounts of the event suggest that he dropped his hat.

“Boulton's attention was attracted to the twirling hat, which seemed to be of a peculiar make. It was not a felt hat, nor a cloth hat, nor a glazed hat: but it seemed to be painted, and composed of some unusual material. “That seems to be a curious sort of hat,” said Boulton, looking at it more closely; “what is it made of?” “Timmer, sir,” said Murdock, modestly. “Timmer? Do you mean to say that it is made of wood?” “'Deed it is, sir.” “And pray how was it made?” “I made it mysel, sir, in a bit laithey of my own contrivin'.” “Indeed!”

“Boulton looked at the young man again. He had risen a hundred degrees in his estimation. William was a good-looking fellow--tall, strong, and handsome--with an open intelligent countenance. Besides, he had been able to turn a hat for himself with a lathe of his own construction. This, of itself, was a sufficient proof that he was a mechanic of no mean skill. “Well!” said Boulton, at last, “I will enquire at the works, and see if there is anything we can set you to. Call again, my man.” “Thank you, sir,” said Murdock, giving a final twirl to his hat.”

Because there are no existing photographs or artistic renderings of that 1777 wood hat, our imaginations are left to wonder exactly what the hat looked like and how such a hat could be fashioned which could influence Matthew Boulton (who Forbes has dubbed the 17th most influential business man of all time following Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton, Walt Disney, Alfred Nobel, and others.)


It is remarkable that the wooden hat played such a large part in Murdock's not only securing a job in 1777, and as such, perhaps played a significant role in the industrial revolution as well.

We know for certain, then, that turned wooden hats date at least from 1777 and perhaps much earlier (see below.) These hats must have been novel and rare, however, for to turn a hat on a lathe requires enormous skill, patience and dedication.

[The above was also discussed in an article by Mike Darlow (Exeter, NSW, Australia) in The American Woodturner, Spring 2004, Vol. 19, No. 1, p. 9.]

Note: below the mention of “One Wooden Hat” is obviously whimsical (as are other incongruities “Being very sick, and Weak, but in perfect health” “Two He-goats big with Kid” “Twelve Tin Wooden Platters” “Two Ducks which are all Geese” etc.) Could this broadside have provided Murdock with his inspiration to turn a wooden hat?

From the National Library of Scotland
Broadside entitled 'The Last Will and Testament of Evan Morgan, to his cousin Thom Andrew'
Probable period of publication: 1710-1730   shelfmark: Ry.III.c.36(137)

We also know that ancient natives fashioned hats out of wood. In a recent dispute, the Alaskan Aleut organization requested that Sotheby's withdraw a native wood hat from auction in the autumn of 1998. “These objects are vitally important to the heritage of the Aleut people” wrote Allison Young, cultural Heritage Director of the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association of Alaska, a federally recognized tribal organization.

American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation
News & Notes Vol 6 No 1, Spring/Summer 1999

Hump Hat
The above pictured hat is in the collection of
the Powerhouse Museum of Sydney, Australia.

“A ticket-of-leave man, not being able to afford a hat, cut one from a box tree, using a 'hump' for the purpose. After cutting the hump from the tree, he first charred and then chiselled out the inside (the marks still show), till he had a helmet-shaped shell over half an inch thick all over. He trimmed the edges, allowing a long piece for the back of his neck. When first made it weighed pounds, but his neck muscles accommodated themselves to carrying it. In 1872 I saw the place where he lived, if not the man himself. He wore the helmet till he died. He told my father that he was so accustomed to the weight and thickness that he could not wear anything else. (He bought a hat once and caught cold in it). The edges were broken off before the relic was given to me.” (Dame Mary Gilmore)

Frog Hat
The Lending Museum of Alaska has in its possession several priceless Kiksadi artifacts, including a ceremonial blanket and a wooden hat carved into the likeness of a frog, a kind of family crest for the clan. Elder Wilson explains:

“When you’re havin’ a memorial potlach for one of our people, then the hat would be put on him and the reason for this is to give him strength because he had just lost somebody in his family. The frog hat and the chilkat blanket all have spirits from the past leaders who have put it on. So each time anybody puts it on they leave a part of their spirit in the frog hat and the chilkat blanket.”

Alaskan Hunting Hat
Alaskan hunting helmet appraised by Donald Ellis
of Donald Ellis Gallery, Dundas, Ontario, Canada.

A mother and daughter arrived [at the Antiques Road Show© (PBS, San Francisco, 1998)] with a helmet they had bought at a San Jose flea market. Appraiser Donald Ellis identified the item as a Norton Sound Alaskan Eskimo hunting helmet made from a single piece of wood and decorated with ivory. One of fewer than 25 known in existence, the early 19th-century helmet is valued at between $60,000 and $75,000.

Tling Hat
Tlingit wooden hat, representing a frog.

Explore Indians Northwest and more!

Latter-day achievements in lathe-turned wood hats were pioneered by Johannes Michelsen who regularly teaches seminars in hat turning. When asked by David Ellsworth what he most wanted with his hats, he responded “More people making good hats! There are too many heads for me to cover.” (Woodturning: The World's Leading Magazine for Woodturners, No. 120, February 2003, p 8.) Chris Ramsey, Steve Dunn, Lowell Converse, John Hampton, Larry Hancock, Lorne Babb, Todd Woodrum, Donald Wadsworth, Curtis Thompson, Ron Browning, Paul Mazuchowski, Chris West, Joe Millsap, Robert Baker, and countless other woodturners throughout the world have continued to experiment, refine, develop and perfect techniques of wood hat turning, thus bringing the art form to greater prominence in the 21st century.

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