The 1830s were fraught times for hatters everywhere. Fashionable men clung to the beaver hat for centuries, but in the early 1800s that fashion was threatened by over-hunting the chubby rodents.
Unlike the raccoon caps associated with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone (neither of whom likely donned one), beaver hats weren’t made from beaver skins. Beaver hats were more accurately named “beaver felt hats.” Beaver fur, shaved from the pelt, was mixed, pounded, boiled and flattened, then shaped over a wooden form. Beaver felt was waterproof and could last for generations, with good beaver hats often passed down from father to son to grandson.
Beavers died by the millions to supply fur for felted hats. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his celebrated Canterbury Tales (circa 1400), described his Merchant wearing a beaver-felt hat. By the time the North American fur trade was in full swing, the European beaver was almost extinct due to over-hunting. And by the early 1800s the American beaver supply was dwindling fast. A great deal of early exploration of the American West was instigated to find more beaver pelts.
For more than 400 years, the crowns and brims of beaver hats evolved with the winds of fashion. Beaver hats took on all sorts of shapes, including military headgear, but the most popular style for nearly a century was the top hat—and the top top hat required beaver felt. Carolyn R. Shine, writing in Queen City Heritage magazine [Fall 1987] noted that cheap substitutes were showing up as early as 1800 in Cincinnati:
“The best hats were made of beaver fur sheared very close and smoothed to a silky surface. Second best were roram hats of wool with fur felted in to imitate the beavers.”
Queen City hatters offered a few non-beaver hats such as palm-leaf hats, Leghorn (straw) hats, and “elastic glazed water-proof hats,” but such headgear was seasonal or intended for farmers and other outdoor workmen. The standard hat was beaver-felt, and Cincinnati hatters advertised hats for all price ranges. The finest grade (“super super fine”) beaver hats held the top position, followed by lower quality beaver, followed by good roram, then “common and coarse” roram, and finally (shudder!) hats made of wool felt alone.
Hat-making was a competitive line of work in Cincinnati. The 1829 city directory lists 45 hatters. Just two years later the city directory lists 70, though only 12 of those remained from 1829 and only one was at the same address. The last thing Cincinnati hatters needed was another competitor, especially some competitor with new-fangled ideas about replacing beaver felt with an exotic substitute.
And yet that’s exactly what François Xavier Leon Jean Michel Werk, better known by his Americanized name, Michael Werk, brought to Cincinnati around 1831. Born into a well-to-do Alsatian family, he lit out for the new world and promptly started a candle-making business in New York. He almost immediately moved west to Cincinnati; candle-making requires lots of fat, and lots of fat was precisely what Porkopolis had in abundance.
Cincinnati—or, to be more accurate, suburban Mt. Healthy—had launched an experimental silkworm industry. It occurred to Werk that silk might produce headgear just as waterproof but far less expensive than beaver fur felt. He opened a hat factory next door to his candle shop in downtown Cincinnati.
Werk was a serial entrepreneur and eventually made money not only from candles but from soap, rectified whiskey, and especially wine. But his first foray into diversification through silk hats ran aground on the racial climate festering in Cincinnati during the 1830s. According to Charles Federic Goss, author of Cincinnati The Queen City 1788-1912:
“After a short period he extended the scope of his business by undertaking the manufacture of silk hats, becoming the pioneer in this line in the city. He opened a factory a few doors from his candle establishment and, when not busy with the one interest gave his time to the other, but in the hat manufacture he met with strenuous opposition. The fur-hat makers did not wish a competitor and became so aroused that they resorted to what would be regarded as a very questionable expedient this day.”
In Goss’s telling, it sounds like all 70 Cincinnati hatters connived to destroy Werk. James Landy, in his 1872 volume, Cincinnati Past & Present, describes a complicated and minutely planned chicanery that probably originated with one or two of Cincinnati’s larger hat manufactories:
“In order to render silk hats distasteful and therefore unsalable [the beaver hat-makers] sent to Baltimore and procured a quantity of white silk hats and distributed them among the negroes of the city. This was an unlooked-for opposition and one Werk was ill able to compete with. After a time, therefore, he discontinued the hat factory and again devoted his whole time to the development of the candle business.”
By giving away free silk hats to Cincinnati’s African American men, the beaver-fur hatters communicated to their fellow citizens that white men wore beaver-felt hats and only those of other races opted for the radical new silk hats.
The ploy worked, probably too well. While white Cincinnatians were reluctant to wear silk hats because of racist overtones, supplies of beaver felt faded away after centuries of over-hunting on this side of the Atlantic. In time, only the very rich could afford a genuine beaver-felt hat, and within a few years Cincinnati hatters were forced to lure customers with silk as well as beaver-felt hats. Eventually, beaver hats acquired a reputation as old-fashioned and out of style.
By then, Michael Werk had moved on to other opportunities. He dove into soap-making, an industry that fit hand-in-glove with candle making in that both rely on sources of fat. Werk’s Tag soap gave the nascent Procter & Gamble serious competition for decades. For some years, P&G was the runner-up in a Cincinnati soap industry dominated by Werk.