Author: Dr. Andrew M. Thomson

Publication Date: 2008

 

Historic Guelph V47P36

Biltmore Hats, ca. 1960  Photo appears courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives, (F34-0-3-0-0-98)

 

In the 2006 movie The Good Shepherd, one of the characters removes his fashionable hat. The hat's interioe displays the crest of Guelph's Biltmore Hat Company. In an age of product placement, the company had not arranged this golden advertising opportunity.1 It Simply made sense that in the filmmakers' desire to reflect the elegance of post-war espionage, the Biltmore hat symbolized everything they could desire. The hats were the height of fashion, but their pro- duction was a business, and that business was one Guelph's most important. The Biltmore Hat Company has experienced periods of great success and harsh failure over the course of almost 90 years of operation in Cuelph, but it remains a beacon of style even as it strug- gles with new business realities.

The Biltmore story began, not in Guelph, but in Niagara Falls. ]ohn Fried founded the company :l;r1917 as the Fried Hat Co. The company did not last long in Niagara Falls and a move to Toronto was similarly short- lived. h'r 1919,the Fried Hat Company moved to Guelph.2 In April 1920, Fried sold the business to a group of three Guelph men led by Frank Ramsay. Ramsay and his partners, Arthur W. Mead and Edward L. Macdonald, agreed to pay Fried $45,000, over the course of six years.3 The new partners changed the name of the company to Biltmore Hats in homage to the luxurious hotel of that name in New York City where Ramsay had stayed on a buying trip.4 To the new owners, the name suggested the elegance they wanted associated with their product.

As the business began to grow Ramsay bought out his partners and brought in more expert executives. William Franke was hired as Vice- President and Tieasurer and William J. Tilter was made General Manager.5 By the time Fried had been paid, the company had expanded to include a straw hat division on Yorkshire street and the original, and growing, operation at Yorkshire and Suffolk. The original work force of 30 had expanded to over 165 and the value of the company was placed at over 9600,000.6

Historic Guelph V47P38Hand-flanging was part of the hat-making process   Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

 

Biltmore Hats enjoyed consistent growth in the 1920s and in 1929 the company issued "4" and "8" class shares to facilitate its continued growth.7 The success of the company allowed it to expand in the 1930s despite the Depression. While the signature of the company remained men's hats, it also expanded into creating the bodies for women's hats. All of the hats were made from felt derived from fur. In most cases this fur was from rabbits, but the higherend hats used beaver fur to create the felt. An Historic Guelph V47P39assembly-line process transformed the hats from fur to felt, beginning with a series of rollers and followed by a coning stage in a shaping machine. The raw felt was blown into a cone form and then shaped in a stage referred to as "hat body 1" that was approximately 28 inches by 30 inches. The resulting form was submerged in hot water and then dried, the process was repeated several times to create the best quality felting. The hat body was then dyed, allowed to stiffery and blocked. A process called "tipping and brimming", which also involved repeated soaking with hot water and shaping, brought the hat body to a shape roughly resembling a hat. The wet blocking was followed by machining and clipping to arrive at the final blocking, brim ironing and buffing. The last stage began with the application of either a smooth, or a silk and fancy finish and concluded with the trimming of the brim. Before shipping, the hats were inspected and given a last brushing under a vacuum, then packed.8

Biltmore Hats Manual on Retail Hat Selling, 1950.   Courtesy of Guelph Museums

 

Historic Guelph V47P40Processing the felt for hats.   Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

 

Steady growth in sales of their own hats and a growing market supplying hat bodies to milliners allowed Biltmore to avoid the depth õf the Depression and experience success in the 1930s. In July 1938 that success was briefly threatened by a workers' strike at the company. The key issues in the conflict were money, working conditions and the recognition of the union. Working conditions, with the presence of the dust created by felting and the heat required for the process, were difficult. The Globe and Mail noted that "reluctance of the company representatives to negotiate with the union in any way is understood to have left the situation still deadlocked" while, "the strikers were equally determined to have union representation."9 The Globe and Mail stated that local Crown Attorney J.M. Kearns had offered to act as mediator and had brought the sides together. The paper's July 26th edition reported that those talks had failed, but the intervention proved successful in the end, and the strike was resolved the following day. The Hat Workers Union Local 182 became the recognized voice of the workers and steps towards improving working conditions were agreed to.10 Despite the disruption caused by the strike and the cost of settlement, Biltmore was still able to declare a 37 1/2 cent dividend for the year ending November 30, 1938.11

Historic Guelph V47P41

Canteen Girls Biltmore Strike, 1938.  Courtesy of Guelph Museums

 

Historic Guelph New Fall Hats Ad V47P42The early 1940s brought new challenges for Biltmore. Frank Ramsay, who had led the company since 1921, died in a boating accident in the summer of 1940. Ramsay was replaced as President by John Fraser. The company's history at the Guelph Civic Museum refers to Fraser as an "absentee President" who saw his duty as guarding the Ramsay family interests. Day-to-day operations fell to Franke and Tiller, the Vice-President and the General Manager. In 1950, Franke was appointed as President, but during the Second World War, Fraser remained in the President's office, while Franke and Tiller were deemed the "guiding lights" by the company history.12 The leadership questions at the top of the Biltmore Company were complicated by the frequent absence of Tiller during the War. Tiller's long experience in the business led to his selection as the deputy administrator of the men's and boys' wear division of the Wartime Prices and Tiade Board that worked to restrict inflation in the wartime economy. Tiller served until the Board ceased to operate in 1946.13 Despite these challenges, business continued to be good for Biltmore. In February 1940, the company reported higher sales and improved machinery as the reason for a gain in profits to a level of $1.24 per share leading a Globe and MaiI headline to suggest that the "outlook is good" for the company.14 Throughout the war years, the profit per share ranged between 89 cents and $1.08, despite the reduction in sales associated with the War.15

 

New Fall Hats adaertisement, The Guelph Daily Mercury, Friday August 28, 1931, page 14. Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

 

Historic Guelph Art of Fitting Faces Booklet V47P42The Art of Fitting Faces booklet.  Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

Historic Guelph Newspaper Clipping V47P42Newspaper clipping concerning the disappearance of F.R. Ramsey.   Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

Historic Guelph V47P43

Strike Committee Biltmore Hats, 1938.  Courtsy of Guelph Museums

 

The decade or so after the Second World War were good for Biltmore. Advertising for the company during the War was tempered by the necessity to focus on victory but the company found ways to remind its customers of the glamour Biltmore hats promised. One of the company's ads in the last year of the war showed a Canadian sailor in his uniform hat. The tag line was "Right now I wear HMCS, but I'll soon be wearing a Biltmore Roller!"16 He was not alone. After 1946, Biltmore was able to declare a record dividend for its shareholders.17 Profits continued to increase as the 1940s came to a close.

Historic Guelph V47P44

 

 

 

Biltmore Hats poster.

Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biltmore's success allowed it to expand its connection to the community to include the sponsorship of a Junior A Hockey team. The Guelph Biltmore Mad Hatters, often shortened to Biltmores, were launched n 1947. In 1952 the team won the Memorial Cup and throughout the 1950s the "Bilts" kept the company name in the public eye as a junior affiliate of the NHLs New York Rangers. The company also built on the tradition of the "hat trick" by awarding a new Biltmore hat to any player who scored three goals in a game.18 The team name was changed to Royals in 1960 and the franchise was moved to Kitchener in 1963 when it became the Kitchener Rangers.

Historic Guelph V47P45

RoyaI City welcomes home Bilts, Malt 13, 1975.  Photo appears courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives (F34-0-3-0-0-98)

 

Tiller's death in 1950 once again threatened the stability at the top of the Biltmore ladder, but the promotion of Franke to the President's office helped the continuity and the company continued to thrive. The growth of Biltmore sales led them to consider expansion and in 1952 the company bought Lancashire Felt Co.19 After the sale, the new, larger, company began to consolidate and expand their facilities in Guelph to allow for increased production. The old Lancashire facility on Morris Street was refurbished and expanded significantly to accommodate all of Biltmore's production.20 Biltmore also entered into an agreement with the Hat Corporation of America that allowed Biltmore to market hats under the Dobs and Knox labels in Canada.21 In 1956, Franke moved into the role of Chairman and General Manager Norman MacMillan became the President. Under MacMillan's leadership in the late 1950s, Biltmore achieved a dominant role in the Canadian industry. The new plant on Morris Street opened in 1957 and the company was able to ship more than 2,400 hats daily, more than one third of the total Canadian volume.22 In order to maintain this level of production up to 350 master hatters were employed in a process that remained labour intensive despite the technical advances the industry had undergone.

 

Historic Guelph Biltmore Hats Plant 2 V47P46

Biltmore Hats Ltd., Plant #2, 1939.  Photo graph was donated to Biltmore Hats by the estate of George Heffernan

 

The late 1950s were the pinnacle for Biltmore. Technological advances were changing the manufacturing process even further from its craftbased origins. At the same time, the tide of fashion began to turn against Biltmore's style of hats as the 1960s proceeded. One aspect of the Biltmore story that did not change in this period was the company's role as an employer of immigrant workers. Yolanda Piccoli arrived from Italy, newly married and ready for a new life in Canada in 1960. Five weeks after the birth of her daughter in 1962, Piccoli began work at Biltmore, the first seven weeks on the night shift. She recalls a roomful of Italian women doing the sewing work required for the hats. New employees in the sewing area had three days to show they could handle the work. "The man in charge, a Frenchman, he knows... if you don't know how to do it in three days you're no Bood."23 Yohnda was, as she says "OK". The pay was $3.00 an hour, and Piccoli sewed five dozen hats per day. The men from her community were working in other areas of the factory. Now, when visi-tors come to the plant, the workers are from all over the world, but it remains largely a woman's world in the sewing atea.

Historic Guelph Sewing Room V47P46

Sewing room at Biltmore Hats.  Courtesy of Biltmore Hats Inc.

 

At the same time that Biltmore was welcoming women like Yolanda Piccoli, the nature of the work they were doing was changing. Quality hat-makers like Biltmore continued to sew many parts of the hat, but other manufacturers were beginning to use glue. Even Biltmore began to glue hatbands and some liners. Machine-finishing replaced the hand-finish. More significant than changing production, however, was the change in fashion. The 1960s and 1970s saw a steady decline in the market for hats of the type Biltmore made. Some blamed John F. Kennedy who had not worn a hat during his inauguration. Others pointed to longer hair styles for men. Whatever the reason, hat purchases declined. The fur felt-hat market that had stood at more than 90,000 dozen hats in 1958 fell to just 27,000 dozenby 1970.24

Biltmore's reaction to the decline in the market for fur-felt hats took two forms. The first was an attempt to expand the product line by introducing hats suited for more recreational uses. The Rain Away Hats remained popular for many years and Biltmore also began to sell western-style felt hats. This trend continued through the 1970s as

Biltmore began to produce fabic, straw and fur hats as well as caps.zs The second strategy pursued by Biltmore was acquisitions. In 1965, Biltmore purchased the assets of Montreal-based hat-maker Buckley- Brooks. At the same time, other smaller hat-makers were closing across the country, some purchased by Biltmore rival John B. Stetson (Canada), others simply closing their doors. The culmination of this process saw the purchase of Stetson by Biltmore in 1970.26

The stresses of the 1960s also were reflected in a second strike at Biltmore. on February 16,7968, Biltmore workers struck in pursuit of better wages and increased holiday time. After a prolonged work stoppage the fwo sides reached an agreement with the aid of a conciliator-anJthe strike ended on April 27.27 The strains of the market in the late 1960s and the 1970s also forced changes upon Biltmore at the executive and even the ownership level. In 1972 Biltmore was sold to Guaranty Trust of Toronto, taking ownership out of the community for the fiist time. rî 1974 Norman MacMillan stepped down as president, remaining chairman of the board. Michael MacMillan became the new President.28

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s the market for hats fluctuated, but never achieved significant gains. Biltmore had attempted to adapt by expanding into leather belts and men's ties, but these ventures did not bring economic revival.29 A sudden sharp downturn from even these lower levels of sales forced Biltmore into bankruptcy in April 1982. For four months, the company was closed and production ceased. In June of 1982 Stetson Hat co. of Missouri purchased the assets of Biltmore from the receiver and the workers were recalled in Guelph. The irony of salvation at the hands of its former rival was tempered by the fact that stetson decided to use its brand name, not the Biltmore logã and for a time the Biltmore brand disappeared from the market.30 Stetson itself was not immune to the challenges of the market however and the company was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 19g6.31 An American holding company purchased the stetson assets in late 1987, but was anxious to sell off the Guelph facility. In October 1988 the Guelph assets were purchased by a group of Guerph investors with a view to re-establishing the company in Guelph.32

Under the leadership of President R.W. Kloepfer, Biltmore began to rebuild its business. one of the most important decisions was to reduce the size of the functioning facility from 100,000 to 50,000 square feet. Two areas proved successful for the new company. Golf hats made from crushable raffia became popular, but the major market proved to be law enforcement. Biltmore's wide-brimmed uniform hatias used by park and recreation workers and in 1997 the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P) joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) in making Biltmore hats its official head-gear.33

Despite these successes, Kloepfer and his successor, Walter Gosk, struggled to keep the company afloat. That struggle finally failed in 2004 when the company was placed in receivership. Rescue was found in the form of an accountant turned hat-seller from Louisville, Kentucky. Eric Lynes had originally approached the Biltmore Company about selling hats in the American market. He had been looking for a company that could produce a style of short-brimmed hat he had seen in pictures of Malcolm X, and which he believed would be popular in the American market. His search brought him to Guelph and the only company that could provide the quality of hat he sought. Lynes and Biltmore reached an agreement on selling hats in the US market, but before the deal could be finalized Biltmore was forced into receivership.34 Undeterred Lynes attempted to bid on the company/ losing out initially, but eventually in May 2005 he became the sole proprietor of Biltmore Flats.35

Lynes has benefitted from the market for uniform hats, selling to other police forces and pursuing American contracts. The focus for Biltmore, however, has become a return to the company's history as a benchmark of fashion in the hat industry. Lynes has focused on sell- ing stylish short-brimmed hats as fashion accessories. More than 20 percent of the company's business is now with the American market and Lynes has noted that as much as 70 percent of that market is young African-American men.36 As opportunities increase to sell the hats across North America, Biltmore has once again become a vibrant part of the fashion market. As in the past, fashion success needs to be accompanied by financial survival. Lynes has been active in seeking support for the new venture and in promoting his belief in the return to fashion of well-made stylish hats.

In his recently released album C'est La Vie, Guelph musician Adrian Raso pays tribute to the stylish head-gear in the instrumental song "Biltmore Blues".37 The hats feature prominently in Raso's stage performance and set the stylish tone for his concerts. Lynes has been an enthusiastic supporter of the musician in a relationship that has placed a new spin on the old identity of the Biltmore Company. From the style-conscious sailor of the war years, through young goal-scor- ers, to the musician of the 21st century, a Biltmore hat has symbolized style and fashion. The company has suffered the vagaries of the market and the challenges of corporate survival, but it remains an iconic firm in the history of Guelph businesses.

 

ENDNOTES

  1. Rick Spence, "Biltmore Aims to be Back on Top," Nøtionøl post,23 ApriI200T
  2. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, April26,2003. As found in "Biltmore" file, Guelph Museums.
  3. Ibid.
  4. lbid.
  5. "About Biltmore", Biltmore file, Guelph Museums.
  6. lbid. See information sheet.
  7. The limited information of the stock issue is in the Biltmo¡e file at Guelph Museums. It does not include initial share price or value of the company at time of issue.
  8. The details of this process are found in "The Biltmore Hat story," Biltmore Collection, Guelph Museums.
  9. Globe and Mai|,26luly 1938. p. 4.
  10. Bonnie Durtnall, Working It Out: Working Class Life, l-Inions and Associøtions Guelph, 1827-2004, A Case Study. (Single-minded publishing, 2004).193.
  11. Globe and Mail, 21 December 1938.
  12. "B1Ifmorc / Stetson (Canada) Ltd.- Evolution." Biltmore Collectiory Guelph Museums.
  13. Globe and Mail, Wednesday, 22 November 1950. p. 12
  14. Globe and Mail,1 February 1940.
  15. Globe ønd MaiI,6 February 1941;2 February 1942;22lanuary 1948.
  16. Globe and MaiI,3O September 1944.
  17. Globe and Mail,18 December 1947.
  18. "The Goal of Excellence" Biltmore company Museum. This tradition was revived for the Guelph storm by the new owners of Biltmore in the 2002-g junior hockey season.
  19. Ibid. 9 October 1952.
  20. Dawn Matheson and Rosemary Anderson eds. Guelph: Perspectiaes on a Century of Chønge 1900-2000. (Guelph,ON: Guelph Historical Society,2000), p. 169
  21. "Biltmore/Stetson Evolution" p. 2.
  22. "GoaI of Excellence"
  23. Yolonda Piccoli. Interview with author at Biltmore factory, Guelph, April 2007.
  24. "The Goal of Excellence."
  25. Ibid.
  26. "B1lfmore/ Stetson Evolution," p. 2.
  27. Dwtnall,p.292.
  28. "Cancer Claims Former Biltmore President" Norman MacMillan obituary, Biltmore File, Guelph Museums.
  29. "Biltmore-Stetson, Evolution" p. 2
  30. "Goal of Excellence
  31. "Biltmore Hats History" Biltmore Collection, Guelph Museums.
  32. Guelph Mercury,5 October 1988.
  33. Globe and MøiI, 29lune 1997 .
  34. Frankfort Kentuclq State-lournal, 6 February 2007 .
  35. LinkNezos Møgazine Apr,l/May 2007.
  36. Nationøl Post, 23 Aprll 2007 .
  37. Adrian Raso. "A Tribute to Gypsy Swing". Available at:http://www.adrianraso.net/index.cfm. Accessed August 27, 2008.

 

Thank You to Biltmore Hats for their permission to use these images.