Stetson Hat Company Site: The Stetson Family

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Stetson Workers 1910. Image provided by Penn Historical & Museum Commission

intersection of 5th Street, Germantown and Montgomery

John B. Stetson started Stetson Hats in 1865. For the greater part of a century it was the largest hat manufacturer in the world. Located in Kensington, Stetson Hats was known for inventing the Cowboy Hat. Tom Mix, the famous Western film star of the era, as well as many others, donned hats made by Stetson. At its peak in the 1920s, Stetson Hats employed 5,000 workers, most of whom lived in houses built by Stetson on a massive 25-building, 9-acre complex. This city within a city included not just factories and houses but a baseball field, a hospital, and a giant auditorium that was the largest in Philadelphia. Stetson built the complex with a view to creating a tight-knit, family atmosphere among his employees.

Yet Stetson’s paternalist system has been a subject of investigation by numerous historians. It provided employees with health benefits, a building and loan association, a hospital, a baseball field, vacations with pay, a life insurance plan, and a pension plan—in short, a way of life. Many of these perks were unheard of when they were first introduced at Stetson. But how much control did employees really want in their lives? Excerpts from the Hatbox, a monthly magazine distributed twenty years after John Stetson’s death “in the interest of the employees of the John B. Stetson Company”—“for the people—of the people and by the people” helps reveal the ways that Stetson’s management attempted to create a harmonious atmosphere between itself and its employees. It represents an attempt by Stetson’s management to continue John Stetson’s legacy by engineering a Stetson family and a way of life. Though the Hatbox suggests that management fell short in its mission to instill a sense of family in a factory of 5,000 workers, the fact that relations between labor and management were generally amicable throughout the history of Stetson Hats reveals some success. And an interview with a former employee, Kate Karzuk, can attest to the staying power of John B. Stetson’s values over a century after his death.

Issues of the Hatbox from the 1920s reveal the values Stetson management attempted to inculcate in their employees. The Hatbox’s mission was as follows: “to be your intershop means of communication; to be the mirror in which you would see reflected what is going on in other departments beside your own, which would keep you in touch with the big developments going on all around you, and which are making the Stetson organization and its products supreme among American industries.” The Hatbox employed some trickery when it came to “a mirror image.” The image of labor that it projected was always more prescriptive than descriptive. Some reoccurring themes in the Hatbox’s prescriptions included finding existential happiness through one’s work, having pride in one’s work, owing sacred reverence to John B. Stetson, and making the Stetson family the core around which workers’ lives should revolve.

Many of the Hatbox issues open with fatherly words of wisdom to employees. For instance, the October 1925 issue begins with an article called “Finding Happiness in our Daily Work,” where employees, analogous to children, received a lesson:

If we only look at it from the correct angle we will obtain more pleasure from our work and from overcoming obstacles than we will from enjoying the pleasures of pastime…To the ambitious ones who desire to make the most of their life it must be encouraging that there reside within themselves a reservoir of power which is tapped by the simple process of being interested in their work, of taking pride in it, of performing it to the best of their ability. This power comes in response to practice, but it never comes unless the heart is in the practice. A child who practices music with unwillingness will never become a proficient musician.

No doubt employees would have happier lives if they redefined their personal happiness with the concept provided by Stetson’s management! To exhibit the potential for upward mobility in the company, issues often featured an employee who, through pride and hard work, had moved up the ranks over the years.

The Hatbox editors constantly campaigned to inspire workers’ pride in the hats they produced. In the new world of mass production, employees needed extra incentives to care about the production of hats that would be sold to unknown recipients. The October 1924 issue began with a piece called “What Will He Think of Me,” which concluded “If you are human, you will be proud of your ability and while you are working you will keep in mind the picture of some person, maybe a President or a Prince, and say to yourself, WHAT WILL HE THINK OF ME?” In nearly every issue, editors highlighted celebrities like Tom Mix and politicians like Woodrow Wilson who wore Stetson hats or bragged that the hats made a hit and changed styles in such far off places as Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Turkey. “The Stetson Sombrero has almost completely supplanted the once famous Mexican Sombrero. A Stetson is the envy and pride of every Mexican,” claimed one article.

The constant urgency of these reminders for pride in workmanship indicates that the reminders were necessary, that workers did not always display the pride that management desired. Yet it is important to remember that the work at Stetson was only partially mechanized; much handiwork was involved in the fashioning of the hats. A company-produced pamphlet describes the hat-making process, in which mainly men but also women performed many different types of labor in different departments. “At Stetson—as with hat-making in general – the process falls broadly into two divisions, each having its own separate area. The first, known as the Back Shop, produces the felt body; the second, called the Front Shop, takes this felt body and, through all the many operations of refinement and detail, turns out the finished hat.” Recent immigrants worked in the Back Shop doing the heavy, unskilled labor and probably felt less attached to the finished hats than those second or third generation craftsmen in the Trimming Department—men who attached the bands and the leather by hand. According to a company-produced pamphlet, “for decades a system of apprenticeship, modeled on that of the Old World guilds, prevailed.” As late as 1891, apprentices had to follow strict rules:

the said Apprentice doth covenant and promise that he will serve his master faithfully…that he will not play at cards, dice or any other unlawful game…that he will not absent himself from his Master’s service without his leave, nor haunt ale houses, taverns, or playhouses. …And the said Master on his part doth covenant and promise that he will use the utmost of his endeavors to teach, or cause to be taught or instructed, the said Apprentice in the art, trade or mystery of Felt Hat Finishing, and he shall receive as compensation, when working, two ($2.00) dollars per week.

Meanwhile management had to root out the “radical” leftist political ideas of newly arrived workers from southern and eastern Europe. The December 1925 Hatbox issue begins with a piece that promotes self-education: “It will mean money in your pocket, power in your personality, culture, the companionship of the best people, freedom from cults and mob manias, and an altogether rich and fuller life.” [italics added] These articles worked in tandem with Stetson’s Americanization classes in which workers took seven-week courses in English and on the American government and history.

Besides going to great lengths to redefine their concepts of the good life, Stetson management was concerned about its workers’ moral values and religiosity. The editors used each issue of the Hatbox to promote non-denominational noontime church services and Sunday school for children at Stetson Hall. In fact, the Union Mission Sunday School had the largest attendance of any Sunday school in Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. Some historians suggest that Stetson’s Protestant zeal to reform individuals informed his benevolence just as much as his pragmatic desire to reduce antagonism and achieve greater control over his workforce.

Stetson understood that healthy workers meant greater productivity, and reminded employees to take care of themselves by allowing the Stetson Company to take care of them. This applied to sickness, injuries, or even teeth cleanings, all services provided by Stetson doctors, nurses, and dentists. “If your teeth have not been cleaned lately by a dentist, ask whether they need cleaning. It is advisable to have this done periodically,” reads one article. An adjacent article gives a detailed summary on the possibly dire outcomes of common colds and lists the ways they can be prevented. Other blurbs are more gruesome, showing images of to infections left untreated by and sharing stories of workers who had been negligent about their health.

Twenty years earlier, John B. Stetson had designed the complex in a way that would keep his workers healthy. He not only bought the loyalty of his workers by helping them purchase homes through his own Building and Loan association, he also “influenced the design of some of the houses in the area; he advised builders on ways of maximizing light and air circulation in row houses and won national recognition for his efforts” according to historians Cybriwski and Hardy III. And Stetson Hats was not the factory of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In designing his factory Stetson built large windows to generate light and air circulation for worker health and morale.

Stetson’s management attempted to instill a sense of family in its workers; the symbolism included John B. Stetson as the father, a position that J. Howell Cummings had inherited after Stetson’s death in 1906. The December issues of the Hatbox reveal this symbol of paternalism extended to Christmas, in which Stetson and later Cummings acted as Santa Claus. At the famous Stetson Christmas parties, Stetson and Cummings showered gifts like shares in Stetson Hats and turkeys on the Stetson family. “In total, the gifts amounted to $525,000—no mean sum in those years,” according to Cybriwski and Hardy III.

Moreover, neighborhood children would stop by and receive free candy at the Christmas party. This was part of Stetson’s mission to groom neighborhood children who were not yet involved with the company. According to Cybriwksi and Hardy III, “there was a special interest at the Stetson Company in the welfare of children…They, after all, would become employees of the firm in the future and needed to be socialized into the Stetson system at an early age. Thus, there were countless educational and entertainment programs for them.” According to a company-produced pamphlet:

[T]he head of one family put in 56 years; working at present are his granddaughter, her husband and one son; other members of the family who have worked at Stetson are two sisters, three uncles, two great-uncles, two aunts, a nephew and two cousins. In another household, father, two sons, two daughters and two cousins are all actively at work. Husband and wife; father and sister; grandfather, daughter, husband and uncle – the list of closely related craftworkers at Stetson is long indeed.

Stetson management did not only attempt to create a family atmosphere on its own but also attempted to recruit entire families to work there. They continued this tradition until the Great Depression.

The Stetson Auditorium where the Christmas Party occurred was an essential part of Stetson’s paternalism. “This auditorium was one of the first to be built by a business firm for the service and pleasure of its co-workers, and in time it became virtually a civic institution [Italics added]” according to Stetson Century, a pamphlet produced by the Stetson Company before it closed down. In fact, its seating capacity of 5,500 made “it at that time the largest permanent hall in Philadelphia.” It seems quite clear that John Stetson envisioned himself as the head of a state. His Stetson complex was to be a way of life, a state within a state.

Local politicians hailed the efficacy of Stetson’s labor tactics. At the Christmas party in 1925, Senator George Pepper of Pennsylvania spoke to the entire workforce. “I wonder if you people realize what a great service you are doing to your community and to your country by furnishing to the public a working model of industrial peace. Peace is normal. War is abnormal…You people, in co-operation with Colonel Cummings, are helping us all to realize that peace and good-will normally go along with a fine manufactured product and a fair profit to all concerned.” The Republican Senator had recently achieved fame by mediating the Bituminous coal strike of 1922. Unlike many in his party, he opposed the use of injunctions, and he was more sympathetic to labor than most of his contemporary Republicans. Understandably, he praised the methods of Stetson’s management that obviated the need to even discuss injunctions.

Few things are more ghastly than Christmas in a household where for 364 days in the year people are at odds and go through the form of exchanging gifts on the 25th of December. Few things are more ridiculous than the exchange of Christmas gifts in an office or shop or mill where to the chief all the employees are strangers and to the employees, the chief is a distant impersonal and unlovely figure. Nothing is finer or more reassuring than to see a Christmas celebration in which on the eve of the great feast everybody manifests in action the spirit which has animated all the days of the year…Colonel Cummings is the Santa Claus of this occasion…but he is only part of it. Your part is as great as his.

And Pepper was not the only famous individual to speak at Stetson Hall. Other speakers included William Howard Taft, Charlie Chaplin, Billy Sunday, Connie Mack, and numerous Pennsylvania governors.

Yet with so many different departments, management had a difficult time achieving a family atmosphere among 5,000 people. Each issue included a “Factory News and Gossip” section, with stories separated by department, to do just that. These included news of marriages, births, deaths, -the ways workers spent their vacations, and general workplace humor. Sometimes they were just one line chronicles of the goings on. For instance, a November 1925 blurb about the Mechanical Department read: “Did you see Earl Vogt’s hair cut? Earl says he got tired waiting in the barber shop for the flappers to be bobbed, so he tried a self hair cutter. It looks it too!” It continues, “Keep your eye on Frank Zornick at noon. If you see him push his hat back and smooth his hair you can depend upon it a certain girl is about to pass by. Who is she, Frank?” In the “Fur Cutting Department,” one read: “We wonder why Pat Powers didn’t stay and help Miss Alice Hoxworth when her automobile broke down this side of Willow Grove on their way to work the other morning” Of course, despite the values management was attempting to promote in its employees, the bottom line remained: “[W]e take our hat off to Mr. Chris Urbach for staying with Alice and seeing her through her trouble, although he lost a half day doing so.”

In order to create a way of life, Stetson Hats sponsored social events outside work, too. Hatbox issues included updates on the various social events sponsored by Stetson Hats occurring inside and outside work. Bowling matches between departments were a chance for employees of different departments to rub elbows and compete. The Hatbox encouraged employees to attend company picnics, retreats to the Stetson bungalow on the Perkiomen, weekend bazaars, and dances at the Stetson gymnasium. The Stetson complex even had its own baseball field, where Stetson’s team would play other factory teams in the city.

In one 1926 Hatbox issue dedicated to the memory of John Stetson, long-time employees shared their warm memories of “the chief” and founder. One article contained photographs of the furnishings of Stetson’s old office. Another documented a memorial service in which where Rebecca D. Stief, a long time employee in the trimming department, stated, ‘It’s been interesting to watch this Company grow, and interesting to note that the same old happy family spirit among the employees still continues, and grows stronger in spite of the increase in numbers.” Others told stories about Stetson’s selflessness; they recalled him lending money to employees who needed help. On the 60th anniversary of the company, in January 1926, a poem titled “The Shadow” appeared inside the front cover of the Hatbox. It read:

EV’RY great institution is

The shadow of some great man,”

are Emerson’s words, as I recall—

The words may not be exactly right,

But this I know is true,

That I have felt the influence

Of Stetson—so have you.

Sixty years ago John B.

Began to build—for whom?

Maybe he started to build for himself

When he rented that single room.

Ambition may have urged him on

As he went his upward way.

He shared success with those who helped—

He’s helping us to-day.

Years have gone, but we still feel

The warmth of his great heart.

Each day he continues to live for us,

We never seem apart.

The founder’s ideas are made to live

By those who believed in him.

They carry on and they have kept

His light from growing dim.

Shadows are said to be dismal—drear.

Perhaps they are—but we

Know one that means naught else but light—


Time will roll on and we will depart;

This fervent hope I press—

May the spirit of Stetson live fore’er,

May his shadow never grow less.

However satisfied the workers felt with the memories of Stetson depicted in the Hatbox, it seems clear that many of them were not content with the images of themselves presented in the magazine, as indicated by one special issue:

A few days ago a “kind friend” dropped a “bomb” under the Hat Box Editor’s chair. The explosion nearly wrecked the morale of the entire staff. He flung open the door and shouted, ‘You fellows are not printing what our folks want to read.’ Ouch! That hurt!...If we’re not giving the ‘people’ what they want to read, they’re perfectly justified in waking us up to the fact, even if it does ‘jolt’ us a bit. But—and here’s where we get back at our “friend” and others of the same mind—what is it “our folk” want to read? And—do they all want to read the same things—that is, will the same things interest everyone? Remember the old saw, ‘Many men of many minds.’ Well! With 4000 men and women, boys and girls, how many ‘minds’ are we up against? And—mind you! We never qualified as a mind reader when we took this job. Honestly! Don’t you think that the editor has some problems on his hands?

Nor would workers be content with changes at Stetson Hats a few years later, as this “explosion” at the Hatbox foreshadowed the unionization of workers a few years later. In unionizing, workers reacted to Stetson Hats’ introduction of the “Bedeux” system of scientific management, involving the elimination of “soft jobs” and the introduction of piece price work. Also during slack times, management would lay off workers without pay. Finally during the Great Depression, Stetson’s management ended most employee benefits ended in order to keep the company in business. Cybriwksi and Hardy III state that “the end of Christmas bonuses and the abrupt change in working conditions brought on demands for unionization and, by 1934, the first collective bargaining unit was formed.” They struck and achieved recognition in 1936, gaining, among other things, the forty-hour week.

By the time Kate Karzuk worked at Stetson Hats in the 1960s, much had changed at Stetson Hats and in Kensington. The company had downsized and no longer had such a presence in the neighborhood, which was suffering from a more general loss of industrial jobs. Unlike Kate, many of the employees no longer lived there, The Christmas parties that Kate and her childhood friends had attended every year to get free candy were long gone. Most of Kate’s coworkers were adults who had worked there a long time but had moved to Northeast Philadelphia—the company no longer had the means to recruit Kensington’s children. Moreover, Kate’s department of fifteen people employed both men and women; this type of integration within departments was not typical in previous years. While Stetson had previously been “not just a living, but the living” as a company produced pamphlet phrased it, by the 1960s it was just a living.

Though John B. Stetson was long dead, his shadow certainly lived on in the institutions he created. Despite the unionization of workers in the 1930s, what Kate remembers from the 1960s is the spirit of cooperation that Stetson hats had worked to preserve for so many years. “It was a nice place to work,” she recalls, “like one big happy family.” She rarely met anybody outside of her department of fifteen people—yet a sense of family existed within her department. Kate had spent almost twenty-five years working at a knit-goods store and gone to work at Stetson Hats when she was about fifty years old. She distinctly remembers being welcomed, even as a newcomer. “The bosses were very nice to us. They treated ya like ya belonged.”

She told a particularly humorous and illustrative story to illustrate her relationship with the floor managers:

You know it wasn’t that you were afraid of them, because I can remember the day that Mayor Dilworth, I didn’t like him. And I had his hat, he always wore a Hamburg. And every time it got a little dirty he would send it in. and he would get it done because he got it for nothing. And this one day I’m finishin’ up his hat and I took it and threw it on the floor and kicked it. Who’s in front of me but him. God, I thought, oh god I’ll get fired. I didn’t. The boss just looked at me and he laughed.

And, without my asking, Kate told me about the legendary origins of the first Stetson Hat, a legend which had been so often promulgated by the company years before. In it, John Stetson had undertaken a journey to the West just prior to the Civil War. There, he invented the famous 10-gallon Cowboy Hat in order to hold the maximum amount of water for travel in the desert. Perhaps she had heard this legend going to Stetson’s Christmas parties as a child. Kate, whose parents were German immigrants, had learned German as a primary language at St. Peter’s grade school on 5th Street and Girard Avenue in the early twentieth century. Though she could no longer speak German as a 96-year-old woman in 2010, she could remember the legend of the founding of Stetson Hats. Apparently, Stetson’s methods for working on the hearts and minds of employees were quite effective. John B. Stetson’s shadow outlived even Stetson Hats itself in the memory of a former employee.