Separate from the people depicted alongside or in association with items of material culture, how are objects themselves endowed with identity politics? Think about brands like Mr. Clean, Mr. Muscle, or Brawny – “each of these products offered women consumers added masculine muscle to complete their household chores” according to Rebecca K. Shrum in “Selling Mr. Coffee: Design, Gender, and the Branding of a Kitchen Appliance” (288). Late twentieth-century advertisements, like those for Mr. Coffee, “suggested the possibility of men’s increased participation in household tasks” (292). Advertisements from the 1950s often suggested an appliance was so intuitive that “even a woman could use it;” now they suggested even a man could bother with it (if a woman wasn’t there to serve him).
Similarly, in Marlys Pearson and Paul R. Mullins’ “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology,” a doll acts as a nexus of historical social-cultural expectations for women – its marketing shaped and shaping gender roles and career ideation. Barbie’s significance cannot only be ascribed to and studied through her body, but through the doll’s own collection of material culture (i.e., clothing and accessories). In this, Pearson and Mullins find that Barbie “‘imitates’ a seemingly comprehensive constellation of ‘feminine’ attributes, social roles, life experiences … Mattel aspires to present Barbie as an ‘authentic’ archetype of femininity, but the company’s inability to anchor the doll’s domestic symbolism over four decades reflects that there is no essential domesticity (if not femininity) to identify” (258).
With these dynamics in mind, I will continue to explore the gendering and sexing of material culture through this hat the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection (pictured below) among other themes. For centuries, hats have served as a sign of feminine or masculine respectability. The bowler (or derby) hat in particular was designed in the mid-nineteenth century and remained popular until the mid-twentieth. I plan on checking out Fred Miller Robinson’s The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography – on the social and cultural significance of the derby – for a more thorough exploration of that hat’s historical context and symbolism.
In the meantime, I have begun the process of describing and analyzing this particular hat. It’s black – the body is likely wool with short fibers and the accents are likely grosgrain ribbon. The brim is turned up at the sides, with circumference of about 33 inches, 11.5 inches long and 9.5 inches wide. The crown is rounded with a circumference of about 23 inches, 8 inches long and 6 inches wide, and a depth of 6 inches. The top has a collection of small holes for ventilation. The outside of the hat has some staining. The stitching on the edge of the ribbon surrounding the crown the hat is worn and coming undone. However, the brown leather lining doesn’t seem particularly worn. Perhaps it was used for display?
The lining is embossed with one stamp that reads “Flexible Conforming / John B. Stetson Co. Philadelphia” and another that reads “Made expressly for Max Levit / Shenandoah, PA.” The Stetson Company, a mass producer of hats, was founded in 1865 in Philadelphia – it ceased operations by the late twentieth century. Meanwhile, thanks to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive, I’ve already identified Max Levit as a hatter and/or clothier local to Shenandoah, PA (see below). Some other bits of information I intend to follow up on – this 1899 patent application for a display case, this 1917 ad in the Shenandoah Evening Herald (much smaller than the 1899 ads below), Mr. Levit’s appearance on the Fifteenth Annual Convention of Rotary International registration list in 1924, his being the sole representative for Shenandoah, PA in the American Jewish Yearbook 1932-1933, and his gravesite with brothers listed as Harry (who passed in 1940), Sol (a younger brother by 7 years, who passed in 1961), and Joseph (a younger brother by 12 years, who passed in 1977). By association, we can tell that Mr. Levit was also a brother-in-law to Bessie D. Levit and uncle to David, Joseph L., Samuel M., Morris J. Levit, Theresa Pincus, Sara May Durst and Adelaide G. Katz (all through Harry). Max Levit was born in 1871 and died in 1949 – he lived to be 78 years-old.
Derby Hat. Produced by John B. Stetson & Company, c. 1925. Made for Max Levit of Shenandoah, PA.
Courtesy of the Robert and Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection.
Evening Herald of Shenandoah, PA. (From left to right) June 6, 1899; July 17, 1899; November 20, 1899.
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive.