History of the Hat Industry at Orange, NJ

Hats, Hatters and Hatmakers 


History of the Hat Industry at Orange, NJ

The Oranges (which included, at various times, areas known as Orange City, Orange Twp., Orange Valley, East Orange, South Orange, West Orange, Doddtown, Hilton, Llewellyn Park, Middleville, Newark Mountain, Peck Town, and Pleasant Dale) were a center of the hat industry in the 19th Century. It was one of the largest employers in the area, manufacturing over four million hats, and saw the start of the great Stetson & Company among others.

In the 17th Century, "the Huguenots had a virtual monopoly on the processing of beaver; they held a chemical formula for treating the fur that enabled them to maintain their control of the European beaver market even after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes resulted in their diaspora." (Huguenot Heritage, Issue 11, Winter 2002/2003)

In 1731 "British Parliament passed the Hat Act 'to prevent the exportation of hats out of any of His Majesty's colonies or plantations in America, and to restrain the number of apprentices taken by the hat-makers in the said colonies, and for the better encouraging the making of hats in Great Britain'. By this act not only was the exportation of colonial hats to a foreign port prohibited under severe penalties and no person was allowed to make hats who had not served an apprenticeship for seven years; nor could any hatter in the colonies have more than two apprentices at one time; and no black or negro was permitted to work at the busines of making hats." (The American Whig Review, 1852)

In 1730 George Personett, hatter,  purchased land at Staten Island, New York. By 1740 he had removed to the Orange area of Essex County, New Jersey. His descendants followed the hatting  trade in Orange for four generations.

"We find no precise data as to when the manufacture began in Orange ...during the first decade of the (19th) century (there was) a great increase in the hat manufacture. There was, at first, a large group of hatters on the lots sold by the parish on both sides of the Common, and its Vicinity. Parrows Brook, on the south side of the bridge, where it crosses the Main Street, was then open, and on its east side was a large flat rock. To this rock all the hatters of the vicinity repaired, to wash the stock which had gone through their dye-tubs. As the years advanced, the business increased till all the running streams of the Orange region were discolored with hat dyes." (History of the Oranges, Stephen Wickes, 1892)

In 1758 at Orange, "a charge made by Rev. Caleb Smith to Mr. Woodhull, for a sum paid to Nehemiah Baldwin for 'dressing an old hat of mine' for Billey, who was a pupil in the grammar school." (History of the Oranges, Stephen Wickes, M.D., Newark NJ, 1892)

"The manufacture of fur hats was established at what is now Orange in 1785 or 1790, and, as near as can be ascertained, James Condit was the pioneer hatter of the territory now embraced in the Oranges. ...He was soon followed in the business by Cyrus Jones, when they became the leading hat manufacturers, and remained so for several years.  In these shops, the now venerable Abram Mandeville learned the trade, commencing in 1821 when fifteen years of age. Then came Israel Hedden, Lewis William, .... Griffin, Stephen Stetson, Albert Tichenor, and others. ... These were all in the hat business here previous to 1840. ...John Stryker had a shop...at the corner of Main and Centre Streets. ...No doubt Mr. Stetson located on the Rahway (River), in the valley where the Stetson factory is now located.  James Condit had a hat shop in the early part of this century on the corner of what are now Main and Cone Streets." (History of Essex and Hudson Counties, William H. Shaw, 1884)

1790, Orange: "Stephen Stetson opened a hat manufacturing plant on Main Street in the Brick Church section of East Orange." (The Early Hatters of New Jersey, Harry B. Weiss and Grace M. Weiss, 1961, Trenton, NJ)

1810 Federal Census: Essex County, NJ;  26,150 fur hats manufacatured;  valued at $78,450
1840 Federal Census:Essex County, NJ: Value of Hats and Caps Manufactured: $992,848; 624 employed

"The Oranges attracted many hatters, perhaps because of the mountain stream that supplied water which the hatters had to have. Some hatteries were built over a brook. ...Charles J. McGuirk has written that from 1852 to 1921 there were as many as fifty hat factories in the Oranges, all at brooksides. In the valleys between the First and Second and the Second and Third Mountains, there were factories where the hats were shaped. Then they were sent down in the Orange valley for finishing. The work in the factories was all done on a piecework basis. There were many steps in the manufacture of a hat, all done by hand. Over a period of one hundred years hat making contributed much to the prosperity and well-being at the Oranges." (The Early Hatters of New Jersey, H. B. and G. M. Weiss, 1961)

1892, August 13: New York Times - Dying From the Tariff Decline of the Hat Industry in the Oranges, Raw Materials Taxed Until the Imported Manufactured Article Undersells the Domestic Product: -
" In the Oranges and vicinity there are over thirty hat factories, and a large proportion of the mechanics of this city and the surrounding townships depends entirely for a livelihood upon the different branches of the manufacture of soft fur nats. For years this business has been recognized as the backbone of Orange's prosperity...Since the introduction of a higher tariff under the McKinley act...(hat manufacturers) have not, for nearly two years had enough work to keep in employment one-fifth of the 3,000 men and women who have depended upon the hat shops for their livelihood. ...The reports of the Orange Hat Finishers' Association show that from May to November 1891, 260 men ...left the business because of the difficulty of finding employment at their trade. ...The duty on(imported) leathers, fur and trimmings was increased by the MicKinley bill with the intention of establishing factories for the manufacture of these goods in this country. ...Out of about three thousand mechanics there are barely a thousand who have employment,...firms agreed in pronouncing the McKinley bill the deathblow to the hatting industry in America, ... During the Cleveland administration the hatters of Orange enjoyed plenty of work and good wages. At that time the average wage for an average finisher were $12 per week, but few are now averaging $5. In sizing departments men are now glad earn $9 per week who four years ago earnd $20 every eek. Pouncers will now average $4 per week, as against $18 weekly when the trade is good. and, girls consider themselves fortunate to make a dollar or two per week, whereas during Cleveland's term they earned as high as $10 and $12 per week. "

1896, August 3: New York Times Hat - Trade Has Revived Manufactories in the Orange District. Many Workingmen Are Benefited. Wages Will be Increased as Soon as the Wool Imported Under the McKinley Tariff Is Used up.  Orange, NJ -  
"No surer indication of the return of good times has probably manifested itself than the revival of the hatting industry in the Orange district, where manufacturers and journeymen have lived from hand to mouth under the constant shadow of financial ruin and idleness since the tariff agitation, which began with the introduction of the McKinley bill and made what was formerly one of the most thriving industries in New Jersey uncertain and unprofitable.
The hatting district of Orange...includes twenty-five large factories, with a number of big forming mills, block-making shops, box factories and 'buckeyes', giving a total capacity of from 30,000 to 40,000 dozen hats a day when all the factories are in active operation to their full limit. It is estimated that in busy seasons 3,000 persons are given employment in the hatting trade, and that over 2,500 families in the Oranges (work) in the industry for a living. ...hatting thrived in the Oranges, and not only did the factories give employment at good wages to local residents, but men came from other cities to work in the Orange Valley factories. Almost any kind of a hatter could easly earn $25 a week, and girls easily made $12 and $15 a week at trimming hats, while expert makers and finishers had no trouble in earning $5 and $6 per day.
For the last few years, since the unsettled condition of business subsequent upon the uncertainty of tariff changes began, the hat factories have been running on half time or less, much of the time, with a reduced number of employees.  .....Prosperity vanished. In its place had come hard times, hunger, and poverty. Many of the hatters had saved money, and, in addition to providing comfortable for their families, had been able to build for themselves attractive homes, trusting to the continuance of good times to pay off the necessary mortgage....this was comparatively easy, but when wages dropped ...the best workmen in the vicinity were obliged to sustain their (life) on $8 and $10 a week.
When the prohibitive McKinley Tariff was removed ... jobbers and retailers were slow in regaining confidence, and slower in determing to order new stock. Then the straw hat season began, and the trade in that line proving to be greater than ever before, no felt hats were ordered until needed for the fall and winter; These orders began to arrive at the factories last month and were greeted with joy by thousands of Orange workmen and...are now employing a full complement of hands for the first time in three or four years and are overtime to fill their orders.
The present low wages of employees, it is believed, will improve as the industry improves. Nearly all the soft and stiff fur hats made, especially the higher priced grades, are manufactured from imported raw material, which come from Belgium and Holland."

On July 17, 1901, in a special to the New York Times: To Form a Hat Trust:
"The hat manufacturers of New Jersey and Connecticut ...plan to form a company to control the leading hat factories of the country, nearly all of which are situated in Orange and in Danbury, Connecticut, with a few in Philadelphia and Newark. The new company will probably be called the United Hat Manufacturers of the United States. .. It is proposed to have one large salesroom in New York."

1908: There were 1379 employees in the felt hat industry at Orange, NJ

1909: There was a strike over the use of union labels.

1921, April 23: New York TImes - HATTERS REJECT WAGE CUT: "A proposed reduction of 20 per cent. June 1 in the wages of 4,000 workers in the hat industry has been rejected by the United Hatters of America: In this city. Newark and Orange, N.J., it was announced yesterday by Martin Lawlor, General Secretary of the union. The reduction would decrease the daily earnings of the hatters from $8 to about $6. Early in the year hatters voluntarily accepted a 20 per cent wage decrease which cut their earnings from $10 to $8 a day.  

In 1921 there were only five hat manufacturing firms left in Orange, N.J.  Many hatters had left Orange for Danbury and Norwalk, Connecticut.


<script type="text/javascript"><!--
google_ad_client = "pub-3668816156381694";
/* 728x15, created 5/19/08 */
google_ad_slot = "5431576427";
google_ad_width = 728;
google_ad_height = 15;
<script type="text/javascript"