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Hats Off to Hats of Distinction

Valerie Baron dons a hat at the DAR event.

Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society (VHAS) recently hosted the April business meeting and program for the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) local chapter, Greenwich Tea Burning. The program concentrated on issues of preservation of history, education, conservation, women’s history—and it featured a display of millinery with the label “E. Chard Doerr.”

Ella Chard (1886–1967) was born in Vineland and had a career as a milliner. Her hat shop was located at 506 Landis Avenue. For more than 50 years, she created custom, one-of-a-kind hats for her clientele.

The exhibit of hats included three from the Society’s collection and several provided by the program presenter, Valerie Kontes Baron.

The program included hat-making history in colonial America and highlighted Danbury, Connecticut as the center of the growing and very successful hat-making industry. It was so successful that English hat makers became alarmed and petitioned Parliament to restrict colonial hatters who competed with British hat makers.

Consequently, the Hat Act was passed in 1732 to prevent export of colonial American hats. Exportation of hats from the colonies was strictly forbidden. This was only one of many restrictive trade laws, tariffs and taxes unfairly imposed by the British Parliament and that would eventually convince the colonists to fight for independence.

During the American Revolution, a song was sung referring to a hat. Undoubtedly young American children sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” without knowing its true meaning. To many Americans the following refrain is familiar. “Yankee doodle went to town a-riding on his pony. He stuck a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni.”

British soldiers would sing this song to taunt and ridicule the new untrained American troops which were, in many cases, a poorly dressed army. The Redcoats showed disdain for our troops using the terms “Doodle” to mean “Fool” and “Macaroni” meaning “Foppish Dandies.”

In a stunning example of historic justice, “Yankee Doodle” was played by the American Fife and Drum Corps on the battlefield in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia as British General Charles Cornwallis and his 8,000 soldiers were forced to surrender to General George Washington as the victorious Continental American troops watched.

Fast forward to the 19th century and a reference to a “Mad Hatter” appears in the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. Perhaps, this was a reference to the “Danbury Shakes,” a term given to symptoms arising from prolonged exposure to mercury used in the process of hat-making, notably in Danbury, Connecticut. Mercury poisoning, vapors and dust that circulated in the factories with little ventilation caused the hat-makers to show both neurological and psychological symptoms. These included burning or peeling skin, loss of hair and teeth, mental confusion, tremors and more, sometimes leading to death.

Ella Chard was born in 1886 and eventually married Harry Doerr. When Mrs. Doerr began her career, she would have seen late Victorian and Edwardian hat styles. In 1906, when she was approximately 20 years old, Edwardian hats were the height of fashion. These were exceedingly large with tremendous piles of exotic feathers and occasionally included an entire bird.

The hats were beautiful but had a devastating toll on the bird population. Thousands of birds were hunted for their plumage, leading to near extinction for the sake of fashion.

Fortunately, there was a growing sentiment against this destructive practice and in 1918 when Mrs. Doerr was approximately 32 years of age, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was made into law. This law was enacted to prevent the taking, killing, capture, sale, trade and transportation of migratory birds. Obviously, this greatly affected the milliners’ work. No longer could flamingos, egrets, storks, herons, birds of paradise, pelicans, songbirds and many more be killed to decorate hats. Today, other birds such as eagles, hawks and owls are on the list to be protected. Heavy fines and jail time can be levied on violators.

The collection of E. Chard Doerr hats on display at the VHAS included no styles prior to 1930 but ranged from the 1930s to early 1960s.

It is interesting to know who commissioned and wore these hats. Many of the hats in the exhibit belonged to Lucy Sawyer Verderose Smith. A graduate of Vineland High School in 1923 and the Maryland College for Women in 1927, she became the first librarian in Vineland High School on West Landis Avenue. She also was a 60-year member of the Greenwich Tea Burning Chapter of the DAR.

Doerr made stylish hats for Lucy and other women looking for something unique. Even though the selection of feathers legally available was limited to ring-neck pheasants, turkeys, chickens, peacocks and ostriches, she created artful hats of lasting beauty that deserve to be admired and preserved as hallmarks of American women’s fashion history.

Submitted by Valerie K. Baron, Greenwich Tea Burning Chapter NJDAR