JFK's Hat Legacy The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby

While the recent fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is fresh in our minds, I want to take a moment and focus instead on the lesser-known story of the competition to place at hat upon his head for the 1961 inauguration, and the ultimate meaning of that event.

Kennedy marks a turning point in our country’s history in terms of not just hat wearing, but in men’s fashion in general.  Two of the largest hatting concerns, The John B. Stetson Co., and Hat Corporation of America, got their start around the same time.  Stetson dates to 1865, and Hat Corporation of America dates to Crofut & Knapp’s founding in 1858.  Thanks to modern manufacturing techniques and continually modernizing factories, they were the two biggest hat companies in the United States in 1960.  They and the rest of the hatting industry placed all of their hopes upon for a turnaround in hat sales on John F. Kennedy, much as the hopes for a new era in America rested upon the young president.  Kennedy really does reflect the end of an incredible era for the hatting industry, roughly a half-century of strong hat sales followed by nearly a half-century of decline.

I won’t revisit the myth that President Kennedy killed off hat-wearing among American men simply because he preferred to go bareheaded.  That myth needs to be put to rest, and no one has done so more eloquently than Neil Steinberg in his book, Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of an American Style.  Hatlessness as a fad, especially among college students, was noted with increasing frequency in New York City during the mid-1920s, even supported by an organized anti-hat movement.[1]  It accelerated after World War II, and by 1960 there was no stopping the downward spiral.  Kennedy’s inauguration and his tenuous relationship with hats and the hatting industry really mark the end of the dominance of an entire industry in American culture and life, and of the social pressure to conform by wearing a hat.

The issue of declining hat sales in America came to be associated with JFK and his habitual hatlessness.  His full head of often-unruly hair was a defining feature, and many newspaper reporters made mention of his lack of hat.  The hatting industry looked upon JFK’s hatlessness with near panic.  The leader of the free world, a man looked up to by millions of people, regularly chose to not wear a hat.  Kennedy merely reflected a long-term trend, but because of his stature in the public’s eyes, the hatting industry knew he could also be a trendsetter.  In short, if they could convince Kennedy to wear a hat, he would be their savior, as if his wearing a hat would suddenly turn around decades of decline.

Candidate, president-elect, and President Kennedy faced pressure from the hatting industry to wear hats more often.  The Hat Institute of America, the hatter’s union, and even two of the President-elect’s potential cabinet members, Arthur J. Goldberg, Secretary of Labor designate, and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare designate Governor Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, encouraged him to wear hats to mollify the industry.[2]

The hatting industry had some initial success with Kennedy, as shortly after the election it was noted that he “lately has taken to wearing a felt hat because the hat makers of Connecticut protested that his bare head set a bad example for the country.”[3]  The true test, though, would come with the inauguration.  Would Kennedy wear a hat at all?  Tradition dictated that he should, and that it should be a high silk top hat.  Kennedy did, in fact, own a silk top hat, as he had worn one to Harvard University’s commencement ceremony in June 1960.[4]

But times seemed to be changing.  Dwight D. Eisenhower broke with tradition by wearing a black Homburg to both his inaugurations in 1953 and 1957.  Ike caused quite the stir when he did this, for Homburgs were considered a “dressy everyday hat,” not a dress hat.  He broke tradition further, causing apoplexy in the industry, by putting side creases in his Homburg, along with the traditional center crease on top.[5]

On top of that, sales of silk hats had long been in decline.   They had faded during the Great Depression, but experienced a brief resurgence in the 1930s with the repeal of Prohibition.  Sales tanked again with the start of World War II.[6]  According to John Reinitz, a manufacturer of silk hats in New York City, prices went up more than 200 percent, presumably due to the unavailability of French silk hatter’s plush.  Turnover was small, and larger stores declined to stock the hats.  By 1955, Reinitz noted that Opera Hats, the collapsible top hat we associate with magicians today, became the go-to hat for men looking for a formal hat.[7]

Kennedy decided to let his inaugural committee decide whether or not to don a top hat.  Edward H. Foley, chairman of the inaugural committee, noted the committee would investigate if a top hat inaugural was traditional.  Kennedy reportedly added, “You do what’s traditional.”[8]  The answer, to the hatting industry’s relief, came soon enough.  By early December, word was leaked from Kennedy’s tailor, Samuel Harris, that he would indeed stand with tradition and wear a silk top hat for the inauguration.[9]

Now that it was clear Kennedy would indeed wear a silk top hat for his inauguration, the question of who would make the hat for Kennedy became a hot issue.  It’s no surprise that the largest manufacturers competed for the honor.  The John B. Stetson Co. commissioned Hyman Gelfer of the John Reinitz Co. of New York City to make a silk hat for Kennedy to wear.  Danbury, Connecticut’s, Mayor John Define Jr. announced that an unnamed Danbury company would make the inaugural hat.  Hat Corporation of America jumped into the fray with the announcement that their silk hatter, William Schnautz, would make hats not only for Kennedy, but also for his brother Robert and Vice-president-elect Lyndon B. Johnson.  Would it be the Philadelphia/NYC teamup that won the competition, or a Connecticut firm from Danbury or Norwalk?  In terms of seniority, Hyman Gelfer had 30 more years of experience than William Schnautz, but Schnautz claimed seniority over any silk hatter in Danbury.[10]  That the Hat Corporation of America order was placed with Cavanagh Hats in New York City doesn’t seem surprising, considering their reputation as the finest hats in the country.[11]  Schnautz seemed to have the inside track within the industry, as the Hat Institute of America and the United Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers union placed the order.[12]

It didn’t necessarily matter to the hatting industry as to which firm won the competition, as they considered themselves to be winners all the way around.  Orders were reportedly flooding in for high silk hats so that Washington, D.C., could be ready come January 20, 1961.  High silk hats had not been dictated at an inauguration since Harry Truman’s in 1949.[13]

The American public first learned the winner of the inaugural hatter’s competition on January 19, 1961, one day before the inauguration.  On the game show, “What’s My Line,” William Schnautz was revealed to be the hatter who made the Cavanagh top hat that Kennedy would wear the next day.[14]

William Schnautz[15]

Prior to the inauguration, Kennedy prepared for the event from his suite at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City.  There, Schnautz and John Garside, a hat-fitter for Cavanagh Hats, arrived with for a twenty-minute fitting with the President-elect, bringing with them five different silk top hats of varying sizes and ovals.  Since silk hats are stiff hats, there is no flex to their fit, and thus must be conformed to the wearer’s head if they are to be comfortably worn.  As it turned out, two different size 7 ½ regular oval hats fit Kennedy perfectly without any adjustments needed.[16]  One hat featured a five-and-a-half-inch tall crown, while the other had a five-inch crown.[17]  From photos it looks like Kennedy may have chosen the taller hat, but it is difficult to tell for sure.  I do not have any public domain photos, or else I would post them here.  A few Associated Press file photos of JFK wearing his top hat to the inauguration can be viewed here:


As you can see from the photos, Kennedy removed his hat for the swearing in and his inaugural address, and it is primarily from these photos that the myth that Kennedy did not wear a hat to his inauguration arises, as part of the larger mythos that Kennedy killed hats, one that was certainly perpetuated by the hatting industry.  They needed a scapegoat, and Kennedy, their would-be savior, ended up being in that position.

The revival of silk hat sales that hatters had hoped Kennedy would bring them never materialized.  The Kennedy inauguration was the last bit of glory they would ever see.  By 1962, William Schnautz toiled on, along with Mary Wargo and George Cuneo, the last of Hat Corporation of America’s silk hatters.  Working together on the top floor of the Norwalk factory, they turned out less that 500 silk top hats a year; if sales were good, that is.  But generally, sales were down all the way around.  Hat Corporation of America’s president, Charles Salesky, pointed out that more hats were sold during any year of the Great Depression than in either 1960 or 1961.[18]

Kennedy continued to be pressured to wear hats by the industry.  His old wartime Navy buddy, Al Webb, who served with Kennedy on PT-109, was Vice-President of Sales of the Cavanagh division of Hat Corporation of America.  Webb approached Kennedy in 1961 about wearing hats more often.  He presented him with a Cavanagh snap-brim fedora, which Kennedy was photographed holding on April 21, 1961 while meeting with former President Eisenhower.[19]

President John F. Kennedy and Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Kennedy is holding his Cavanagh Hat.

Photo by Robert L. Knudsen[20]

On a final note, Kennedy’s Cavanagh fedora, ostensibly the one given to him by Al Webb, sold at auction on November 23, 2013.  It was initially estimated to go between $15,000 and $30,000 by the auction house, and the opening bid was set at $7,000.  The winning bid: $7,500.  The hat can be viewed here: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/21572423_john-f-kennedys-cavanagh-fedora.

Today, JFK is still so dissociated from hats that even his personal hat from the time of his presidency brings little interest.   Even if Kennedy had survived the assassination, he would not have brought back a mass return to hat-wearing by American men, and no matter what the hatting industry thought of his hatlessness, Kennedy cannot be blamed for a trend that started long before he was born.  As it stands, Kennedy's legacy regarding hats in American culture is a strong one, for the pressure brought to bear on him to wear hats at all, much less to his inauguration, stands as a pivot point in time.  On January 20, 1961, the man who ushered in the Space Race and thus the modern Technological Age, for a brief, shining moment, marked the occasion by dressing, anachronistically, in the style of an earlier century, of the Industrial Age, and he topped it all off with a high silk Cavanagh hat.

~The Hatted Professor


[1] Bertram Reinitz, “New York Faces a Hatless Fad,” The New York Times, September 9, 1928.

[2] Neil Steinberg, Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of an American Style (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 35–36.

[3] “U.S. President Loses Right to His Privacy,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 11, 1960, Sec. 1, p. 2, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=9Q1ZAAAAIBAJ&sjid=P2wDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7267,2782764

[4] Alicia Armstrong, “Should John Kennedy Go High Hat?” The Milwaukee Journal, November 17, 1960, Part Three, p. 8, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=tEcaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=-yUEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7209,4196154

[5] “Top Hatter: JFK Breaking Ike Tradition by ‘Stovepipe,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 9, 1960, p. 28, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=HGscAAAAIBAJ&sjid=404EAAAAIBAJ&pg=7590,3552100

[6] Ward Cannel, “Why Hatters Are Mad,” The Altus Times-Democrat, Altus, OK, October 16, 1962, p. 4, accessed October 5, 2013,


[7] Grace T. Sayman, “Looking at New York,” The Virgin Islands Daily News, March 16, 1955, p. 4, accessed October 5, 2013,


[8] “Kennedy Allows Committee to Decide Silk Hat Issue,” The News and Courier, Charleston, SC, November 30, 1960, p. 10-C, accessed October 5, 2013,


[9] “JFK To Wear Top Hat And Cutaway Coat,” Meriden Record, December 9, 1960, p. 22, accessed October 5, 2013,


[10] “Rival Companies Vie For Kennedy’s Favor,” New Haven Sunday Herald, December 18, 1960, p. SC-20, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=FZAyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4QAGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5887,5528839

[11] “JFK Chapeau Stirs Tempest in Top Hat,” The Norwalk Hour, December 13, 1960, p. 2, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=KKiikWAUrRgC&dat=19601213&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[12] “Rival Companies Vie For Kennedy’s Favor,” New Haven Sunday Herald, December 18, 1960, p. SC-20, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=FZAyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4QAGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5887,5528839

[13] “Rival Companies Vie For Kennedy’s Favor,” New Haven Sunday Herald, December 18, 1960, p. SC-20, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=FZAyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4QAGAAAAIBAJ&pg=5887,5528839

[14] “Salesky Sees Upturn in Business Trend,” The Norwalk Hour, February 21, 1961, p. 45, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=KKiikWAUrRgC&dat=19610221&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[15] Bramac, Hour Photo, “Designer of Top Hat For Kennedy”, The Norwalk Hour, December 16, 1960, p. 1, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=tQAhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OHYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5345,3676365

[16] “Kennedy Shows He Knows Hats,” The Norwalk Hour, January 19, 1961, pp. 1-2, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=KKiikWAUrRgC&dat=19610119&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

[17] Neil Steinberg, Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of an American Style (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 84–85.

[18] Ward Cannel, “Why Hatters Are Mad,” The Altus Times-Democrat, Altus, OK, October 16, 1962, p. 4, accessed October 5, 2013, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6H5DAAAAIBAJ&sjid=X64MAAAAIBAJ&pg=1244,1284557

[19] “Kennedy Presidential Library Opens the John Saltonstall and Al Webb Collections,” John F, Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accessed November 26, 2013, http://www.jfklibrary.org/About-Us/News-and-Press/Press-Releases/Kennedy-Presidential-Library-Opens-the-John-Saltonstall-and-Al-Webb-Collections.aspx

[20] Robert L. Knudsen, “KN-C17598. President John F. Kennedy and Former President General Dwight D. Eisenhower”, accessed November 26, 2013, http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHP-KN-C17598.aspx

© 2016 J. Bradford Bowers



The History of Crofut & Knapp, Dobbs, and Cavanagh Hat Manufacturing

The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby
JFK's Hat Legacy

The Hatted Professor

JFK's Hat Legacy
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor

JFK's Hat Legacy
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor