Historic Structures

John Stetson Hat Company, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Date added: March 23, 2018 Categories: Pennsylvania Industrial

The Stetson Company began manufacturing hats in Philadelphia in 1865. John B. Stetson moved production to the site on Germantown Avenue in 1874. Stetson died in 1906, but the firm he founded continued to flourish for many years thereafter, finally ceasing operations on the site in 1971. The plant at one time employed over 5,000 people and contained a total of about 1,400,000 square feet of floor space in its buildings. It was then (circa 1920) the largest hat factory in the world.

There were only two American hat-making centers in Colonial times, Danbury, Connecticut, and Orange, New Jersey. The Stetsons settled in Orange, New Jersey, and it was there that John B. Stetson was born in 1830. After learning his trade in his father's hat manufactory in Orange, the younger Stetson started a small plant of his own in Philadelphia in 1865, and moved to the Germantown Avenue location in 1874.

Here he produced his "Boss of the Plains," the first of the long line of Stetson "Western" hats which have come to occupy an important place in the mythology and tradition of the American West. Stetson also manufactured here a variety of dress hats which, together with the "Western," made the name "Stetson" almost synonymous with "hat."

The structures on this site were also closely associated vith Stetson's practices and innovations in labor relations. Here John B. Stetson established a building and loan association to assist his employees in the acquisition of houses and of interest-paying savings funds. Stetson's workers received shares of common stock in the company, and Christinas gifts from the owner were distributed. (The latter included hats for single men, turkeys for married men, and gloves and candy for women.) More importantly, Stetson opened a free dispensary for his employees. The dispensary became a hospital in 1887. In 1965, the Stetson Hospital was fully staffed and accredited and had seventy-five beds. In addition, Stetson provided his employees with a library, and the immediate neighborhood, where many of his workers lived, with a non-denominational Sunday School, which was once the largest such institution in Philadelphia. Stetson's most notable benefaction outside of Philadelphia was the John B. Stetson University, which he founded and endowed in De Land, Florida.

One of Stetson's difficult problems was to train people to become good hatters. His business grew so rapidly that he had to encourage many hundreds of hatters to emmigrate from Italy to Philadelphia. For the immigrants he offered Americanization classes as preparation for naturalization. In May 1906, three months after Stetson's death, the 5,500-seat Stetson Auditorium finally opened with facilities for concerts, civic and patriotic programs, Sunday School classes, roller skating, dances and annual Christmas gatherings. The auditorium, later merely a large stripped space, could accommodate the entire Stetson labor force.

By the time of Stetson's death, the plant occupied almost 1,000,000 square feet of floor space. By the first World War, the buildings had expanded to 1,400,000 square feet of floor space, the largest hat factory in the world. The company then employed over 5,000 people. Business did not decline until the early 1930s, during the Great Depression. Business started to improve in the late 1930s, but it was then necessary to modernize the facilities to produce hats more efficiently and to compete successfully with smaller hat companies. Therefore some of the older buildings were demolished, and the operations were consolidated into facilities occupying about 910,000 square feet of floor space. During American involvement in World War II (1941-1945), the company was required to accept war work, and a large part of the hat plant was converted for making parachutes. After the war, the company again concentrated on making hats. By that time the firm had a world-wide trade, selling Stetson hats in most countries throughout the globe, all made and shipped from the North Philadelphia site.

In 1946 operations were expanded with the purchase of a hat plant in Danbury, Connecticut, but during the 1950s and 1960s the trend toward hatlessness adversely affected the business. By 1965 the Philadelphia plant had proved too large to be economical, and in 1971 operations ceased. Plans by the Stetson firm to demolish the older buildings and adapt the newer buildings for other uses did not come to fruition. In the meantime the City of Philadelphia arranged to use 63,000 square feet of the facilities for its U. S. Department of Labor-funded Manpower Training Program, spending over $250,000 on improvements before moving out in 1976. In May of 1977 the John B. Stetson Company donated the 8.95-acre site and the buildings thereon to the City of Philadelphia.

The architect, George T. Pearson, A.I.A., was born on February 7, I8U9, in Trenton, New Jersey. He worked in the offices of the Philadelphia architects Samuel Sloan, Addison Hutton, and John McArthur, Jr. before practicing independently after 1880. He designed the buildings of the John B. Stetson University' and a resort hotel, both in De Land, Florida, as well as the principal buildings of the Stetson factory complex in Philadelphia. Among his works were several resort hotels and Norfolk & Western Railroad stations in Virginia, and churches in Germantown, where he lived, and elsewhere. Pearson died on January 9, 1920.

All except Buildings 10-13, and the Stepson Hospital, were demolished in site clearance by the City of Philadelphia in 1979. It was planned to preserve and rehabilitate Buildings 10-13, but they were destroyed by fire on September 4, 1980.