By Brady Dale, for Technically Philly.
It’s often worth taking in the names engraved on old Philadelphia buildings. Sometimes, they are surprising.
For example, If you’ve stopped into RAW: Sushi and Sake Lounge, at 1225 Sansom Street, you may have noticed that its ornate entryway says “John B. Stetson Company” in several places. Stetson Hats are one of the greatest names of the Philadelphia manufacturing tradition. The Stetson Company, at its peak, employed 5,000 people in its factory at 5th and Montgomery St.
Still Philadelphia has several photos of teams of men and women at work on different parts of the hat assembly process, which was celebrated across the country and a strong representation of American manufacturing at the turn of the century.
The building at 1225 Sansom was the backdoor of a large Stetson store on Chestnut St. The front side has since been torn down. The Stetson Store’s designated address was 1225 Chestnut st, as evidenced by these photos of a collectible matchbook advertising the store.
Though the store wasn’t really the epicenter of the Stetson empire, it is one of the few remaining physical artifacts in the public space of the legacy of John Stetson in the city. Another being the John B. Stetson School, at E. Allegheny Ave and B. St. Seen below, which was once a charter school, as pictured below.
While the hats were made here on the East Coast, they do have frontier origins. John Stetson had been trained as a hatmaker by his father. He was working as a trapper in Colorado, and made his first wide-brimmed hat out of felt made from the fur of his catches. He showed fellow trappers that it was faster and lighter than hats made from tanned hides. When he brought his creation back to Philadelphia, he decided to make a business of it.
He opened his first hat shop in Northern Liberties, at 7th and Callowhill, and by all accounts had almost immediate and wild success. The hats weren’t cheap, but they were ideal for cowboys who wanted to keep the sun off their face and to show that they were doing well financially. After growing out of this first little shop, Stetson set himself up at 4th and Chestnut. In 1872, the company would open its the Kensington factory, shown in the illustration above. at By 1917, the company is reported to have been earning $11,000,000 per year (approximately $200,000,000 in today’s dollars). Ninety-nine years later, in 1971, the factory was torn down. There are photos of its demolition in Temple University’s collection of old photos from The Evening Bulletin.
1897 Stetson Hat Factory Workers, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives.
The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894: A Compilation of Facts Supplied by Distinguished Citizens for the Information of Business Men, Travelers, and the World at Large, by The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 1894. On Google Books.
STETSON HATS – STETSON STORE CHESTNUT ST PHILA ADV MATCHBOOK with FOX HUNT SCENE, Ebay sale from user “redlands66.”
Story of Philadelphia, by John St. George Royce, Google Books, pages 399-401.