Merrimac Hat Company

Suzanne Cote, curator of the Amesbury Hat Museum, was gracious enough to let Hat Tales borrow a book titled “Making the Headlines”. It’s a detailed history of the Merrimac Hat Company from 1863 to 1944 (published by the company). The book has four sections, the first of which explains how hats are made, and the final three sections reveal details about company history from the time it was started to the Second World War. It is a fascinating account of this company which was a leader in the United States hat manufacturing industry.

Original hat factory in Amesbury, Massachusetts

Abner L. Bailey, Founder of the Merrimac Hat Company

Robert B. Hawley, Merrimac agent from 1872 to 1901

Merrimac Hat Company executives in the 1940s

Merrimac Hat Factory refurbished building 2012

The Merrimac Hat Company operated two manufacturing plants at opposite ends in the town of Amesbury, Massachusetts.  Plant #1 made wool hats, and plant #3 on the other side of town, made fur hats. Sixty percent of Merrimac’s sales volume was selling wool and fur and unfinished hat bodies to other hat manufacturers. The forty percent balance was the sale of trimmed hats.  Manufacturing hat bodies is known in the trade as a back shop operation, and finishing the hat itself is known as the front shop operation.

Merrimac sold ladies trimmed hats through commissioned agents in New York direct to retail outlets, but the company eventually established three direct sales subsidiaries: the Brewster Hat Company, the Thornton Hat Company, and Leighton Hats, Inc. Each company designed and sold its own line of ladies trimmed hats. Each spring, the designers from each company would visit the West Upton, MA corporate headquarters where the new styles were created. Eventually, the MHC established its own sales office in NY under the name Merrimac Hat Corporation, Body Sales division.

There are 40 to 70 separate operations required to make a finished wool hat product, depending on the style and size. The Merrimac Hat Company primarily used two types of felt in the manufacture of hats: sheep’s wool and rabbit fur. The first step to make a hat was to process the raw material through a wool cleaning plant to create the felt which is a lengthy process. The wool was then shaped into hat cones (pre-hat) and the weight of each was checked by a sensitive scale. Merrimac sold more men’s brimmed hats than women’s.

There may be as many as 33 different operations in the trimming of a man’s hat, depending on the style. With the various crown blocks, brim bindings, hat bands, and color choices, each hat style could be unique. Even with all the diverse styles, it was still possible for The Merrimac Hat Company to produce 12000 hats per day.

Abner L. Bailey founded the Merrimac Hat Company in 1856. Despite its humble beginnings, the company grew through a series of mergers to become the largest producer of hats in the United States. On July 6, 1863 the Amesbury Hat Company was consolidated into the MHC and in July 1866 the company absorbed another local competitor, the Horton Hat Company.

In 1872 hats were $7.68 per dozen, and the Chairman of the Board’s salary was $800 per year. Merrimac hats were rated “best on the market”. By 1877, production at all the MHC locations was up to 41239 dozen hats, by 1893, 68927 dozen hats, of which 49100 dozen were wool hats and 19827 dozen were fur hats. In 1899, MHC took over Thom & Bailey, a hat factory in Newburyport as payment of a debt.

The company was growing so much and so fast that by 1912 its annual production included 95,716 dozen wool hat bodies, 1024 dozen men’s fur hats, 31,829 dozen women’s wool hats, 2839 dozen women’s velours and 455 dozen women’s wool beaver hats.

In 1920, the purchase of Ayer-Houston Company of Portland, Maine allowed the company to specialize in the production of fur hats in Maine while wool hats were concentrated in Amesbury. Three years later, Merrimac entered into an agreement with W. William Knowlton & Sons Company of West Upton, MA to supply them with wool felt hat bodies.  The president of Knowlton’s travelled to Europe and discovered a new type of bumper machine. He was so impressed with this machine that he bought several of them and had them installed in the Amesbury plant. The machine changed a “tedious and somewhat inefficient operation” to a “rapid semiautomatic operation which produced vastly superior results”. 

In September of 1926, Rothschild & Rockwell of New York were appointed selling agents for women’s hats, Bates & Thompson Inc, also of NY, were to sell men’s hats, and Jason Webber continued the fur output.  Total sales for the company were $2,126,000.

In 1938, the company finally installed a modern carbonizing and de-pitching plant creating true vertical integration (controlling the process from start to finish) of the hat production process.  They also established a lab for the study of the scientific problems of hat manufacture, such as shellac and fibre tests of various wools. Their hats made the covers of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar magazines. June 1941 saw the opening of a Merrimac Hat Company factory in Greenville Alabama; built from the ground up with the most modern equipment available at the time.

World War II really strained production capabilities; both in the difficulty of acquiring raw materials, as well as the fact that 513 Merrimac employees had joined the US fighting forces. As a result, Merrimac during the war became actively engaged in other things, like making woman’s work caps, mosquito tents, Navy rain coats, and Army sleeping bags. Overall, the company manufactured 1,376,000 dozen hat bodies and trimmed hats. That is 1 in 8 for every man woman and child in the US at that time. Total sales volume had risen to $11,500,000.

For those wondering,  $1 in 1943 had the same purchasing power as $13.35 in today’s (2012) dollars. Annual inflation over this period (according to the dollartimes.com inflation calculator) was 3.83%. That’s a whopping $153, 000,000 in sales in 2012 dollars. That is a lot of hats!

By 1944, Merrimac Hat Corporation was the largest producer of hat bodies and trimmed hats in the United States.  The company motto was always “to give maximum value at minimum cost”. Merrimac stood for “manufacturing the very best products of its kind that is possible to produce and of selling it at the most favorable price consistent with reasonable profits”.