Stay up-to-date with our latest news and learn more about local history!

May 21, 2024

The Updegraffs wore a lot of hats — and manufactured most of them

Article Author: Abigail Koontz (This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail May, 2024) Hats have long fulfilled many roles, from functionality to symbols of self-expression and social status. One iconic hat of the last two centuries is the top hat. Two 19th-century silk top hats in the Washington County Historical Society’s collection offer glimpses into early local hat manufacturers — particularly the hatter George Updegraff. When top hats emerged in the 1790s, descending from earlier styles like the 17th century Pilgrim hat, they were made from felted beaver fur. Beaver felt top hats were initially expensive status symbols, but they were also functional, as beaver fur shed water. Beaver fur was so popular the European beaver population had been depleted by the mid-1600s. French fur traders sought beaver pelts in North America, trading with native populations for furs or hunting down beavers along rivers. Trappers moved further west, decimating beaver populations and spreading malaria through native populations, until reaching California by the 1820s. As pelts flooded American markets, the prevalence of American beaver felt top hats grew, influenced by European fashions. Washington County was no exception. On Aug. 12, 1823, the Maryland Herald announced that the hat manufacturing firm, Updegraff […]