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Haberdashers and Milliners

The haberdashery is something you don’t see anymore.  It used to be a common sight in Western countries, when it was expected for a man to wear a hat when he left the house.  There was enough of a demand for them that they remained a staple in American shopping districts until the 1960s, when fashions began to change.  But you could at one time make a good living at it; it’s what Harry Truman did before he entered politics.  Some say that it was another president, Jack Kennedy, who was partly responsible for hats going out of fashion in America, since he seldom wore them.  (And with a head of hair that good, why would he?)  Of course, there’s no way to measure this, but the disappearance of hats from men’s (and women’s) heads seems to coincide with the Kennedy administration (though I remember my father and other men wearing hats to work until the early 1980s).

A ladies’ hat shop was called a milliner’s, and those have also largely vanished.  It might seem strange that there would ever have been a demand for gender-specific hat shops, but there is some logic to it.  While we think of haberdashers and milliners as being primarily hat professionals, these shops were traditionally shops that also specialized in accessories, as well.  Sure, you’d go to a haberdasher if you needed a hat, but they were also your source for needles, thread, buttons, scarves, tie tacks, watch fobs, spats, cuff links… all sort of sundries.  A milliner would sell ladies’ hats and the equivalent ladies’ sundries.

The evolution of the words haberdasher and milliner is a little confusing.  The definition I gave above is accurate for the 20th century and beyond, but if you go back a couple of centuries, the haberdasher on 1900 is what you’d call a milliner around 1700.  A haberdasher in 1700 might sell some of the accessories that his 20th century counterpart would, but they also sold other small items and trinkets that you might find at what were later called five-and-dime stores.  (Today, the job of the five-and-dime has been largely replaced by drug stores, supermarkets and discount stores.  What are called dollar stores or 99¢ stores also serve this purpose, but sure as what you bought at the five-and-dime sometimes cost more than 10¢, the dollar store sells items that cost more than $1.00.)  Before haberdashers ordinarily opened their own shops, they were street peddlers, carrying lots of small items on their persons, making a living strolling from town to town.  The words haberdasher and milliner have had long journeys to their modern-day obsolescence.
Spectators catching a New York Giants game at the Polo Grounds, 1908


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