Do you like hats? High fashion women’s and men’s hats? Visit The Amesbury Hat Museum in its new home on the second floor of the Whittier Home at 86 Friend St., Amesbury, and feast your eyes on these vintage beauties. Learn about Amesbury’s Merrimac Hat Factory, which in 1946, was the largest maker of hats and hat bodies in the country.
On display are about 200 hats, most of which were made in Amesbury by the Merrimac Hat Company. There are men’s hats, children’s Civil War caps, Howdy Dowdy beanies, Mouseketeer ears, and even a headdress, but much of the glory goes to high fashion women’s hats made in the 1930s and 1940s, including hats elaborately trimmed in feathers and a brown felt hat made for Princess Eugenie for the 1939 World’s Fair.
Former Amesbury resident “Alison Kelley owned them,” said Suzanne Cote, who is now custodian of the collection. “She started collecting with four hats and liked them so much she kept looking for them. She transferred them all to me in 2014..”
The collection was on display in a room off the Salisbury Point Railroad Station on Water Street, she said, “but we lost that room when Salisbury Point went out of business so I put them in a climate-controlled storage facility. When the Whittier Home very kindly offered me the room I was so glad. I hated having them in storage.”
The history of Amesbury hat making may go back as far as the 1700s, but its Heyday probably had its roots in 1838, when Isaac Martin began the manufacture of hats in a small facility on his farm in Amesbury.
In 1860, Martin entered into a partnership with Abner L. Bailey and a small mill was constructed near Bailey’s Pond, which was dammed to allow water for its boilers and wet finishing process.
From 1860 to 1866, the company was known as Amesbury Hat and Horton Hat. In 1866, the name was changed to the Merrimac Hat Company, a name that stuck until the company closed in 1971.
At the height of its success in the 1940s, the company was the largest manufacturer of trimmed hats and hat bodies in the country employing up to 500 people in its manufacturing facilities in Amesbury and another 1,500 employees in facilities from Alabama to Nova Scotia.
“Most of the hats here (in the Amesbury Hat Museum) were made in Amesbury,” Cote said, “but were trimmed in different places.”
After WWII, fashions changed and so did the demand for formal hats. The company struggled for a few decades before closing for good in 1971. Its facilities near the intersection of Beacon and Merrimac Streets closed down. The site is now the home of aptly named Hatter’s Point condominiums and marina.
Merrimac Hat Company may have shut its doors, but several of its hats have survived. Cote, her son Shawn Cote, and Whittier Home volunteers Chris Bryant and Karen Baptiste got them out of storage and put them on display in the Whittier Home second floor sitting room.
“This room was just full of clutter,” Whittier Home Association President Chris Bryant said. “When a pipe burst in 2015, the conservators worked here. Asking Suzanne if she wanted to put the Hat Museum here got the room cleaned out and cleaned up.”
Now that the hats are out of storage and on display, Cote said, “I’m going to make a flyer and do an inventory as best I can. Most of these hats are from the 1930s and 40s. One of my favorite hats is a Leighton Fifth Avenue from the 1930s,” a spring green felt hat. Bryant’s favorite is a dark green Peachbloom Velor hat.
Which is your favorite? There are so many great choices.
“We’ll also display booklets on the history of the Hat Factory,” Cote said. “People can recognize their relatives, who worked in the factory then. People get a kick out of that.”
The Amesbury Hat Museum is included in the Whittier Home Tour. Tours are open to the public from May through October on Saturdays between 11 am and 3:30 pm
Donations are accepted. Reservations are required for groups of more than six people. Facemasks and proof of vaccination are also required. For more information, go to whittierhome.org or call 978-388-1337.