Top News

JOHN DeMONT: A lingering mystery from the elegant era of hats

Alexander Leonard holds up his mystery hat brush from the days when few men or women walked around hatless.
Alexander Leonard holds up his mystery hat brush from the days when few men or women walked around hatless. - Contributed

Alex Leonard, who is 74 and grew up on Percy Street out behind Joseph Howe Drive in Halifax, doesn’t throw out much. He has an old Mackintosh’s Toffee bar package — price five cents — and matching Bayer Aspirin bottles from when he was a kid. He has a toy robot from when he was three, and his first radio which he got when he was 10.

In his home office in Beaver Bank, he keeps an intact, vintage table hockey game, still boasting the mounted, rotating Montreal Canadians and Toronto Maple Leaf hockey players.

His garage in Beaver Bank is home to a 1987 Toyota Tercel, which goes by the name of Harold, and, based by the picture he showed me, is still as good as new.

“All of these little knick-knacks I have are history,” he said Thursday, inside a Tim Horton’s on Quinpool Road, not far from where he used to peddle his bike as a kid, and “every one of them has a story.”

Which is why he needs to know more about the object lying before him on the table, which he has brought to show me.

It is a brush, four inches long and a couple of inches from the tip of its well-used bristles, to the top of its brass handle, which bears some nice, ornate scroll-work.

Richards Hatter is written in elegant cursive on the left side of the surface. On the right it says Halifax, N.S.

“My aunt Jennie Carleton was a master seamstress at Mitchell Furs on Blowers street,” he says of the item’s previous owner. “It was said that she was a real magician when it came to using a needle and sewing machine.”

Alexander Leonard holds up his mystery hat brush from the days when few men or women walked around hatless. - John DeMont
Alexander Leonard holds up his mystery hat brush from the days when few men or women walked around hatless. - John DeMont

It’s no surprise that when she died in 2008, at 85, her possessions included a hat brush.

She was, I am told, a live wire, a crackerjack, an ace cribbage player, who was also a member of the Red Hat society, an international social order for women over the age of 50, which allowed her to indulge her love of smart head gear.

“Back in the 40s and 50s,” said Leonard, a regular letter writer to The Chronicle Herald, who spent his working days in the food businesses, “if you look at the old pictures of Halifax, downtown, on Gottingen Street, on Quinpool Road, it was a maze of hats.”

Before donning one, a woman like his aunt would have given it a quick brush to get rid of hair, lint, or any other residue, and just to give it a fluffing up.

Leonard is old enough to have caught the end of that period, which he remembers fondly, as he does most things about being young in Halifax during those years.

Back then, nobody sported ballcaps like the one from the Toyota dealership Leonard wore on Thursday.

Instead, with the casualness of the 60s just around the corner, men and women wore real, honest-to-goodness hats, that I recall as somehow elegant, jaunty, and sombre all at once.

Those were the days, Leonard recalled, when every home had a rack next to the coat rack, and when even working folk like his own father, who punched in at the Olands Brewery, wore hats.

Back then, demand for hats was such that whole stores were dedicated to selling head gear -- which is why Leonard is so determined to find out about Richards Hattery.

His hope is to present a descendant of the Richards clan with the hat brush that had somehow fallen into Aunt Jennie’s possession.

Leonard is a hard-working sleuth. He has perused the Nova Scotia Archives, contacted possible hat suppliers in Toronto and even sought the wisdom of Bill Mont, Halifax’s king of the flea markets.

Nothing.

In desperation, Leonard took to Kijiji, asking for help hunting down the Richards family. So far, 1,279 people have looked at the ad.

“Some people have offered help,” he said. “but I have had no real luck.”

He keeps looking anyway, because that is the kind of thing he does, and because it is a mystery.

It is like finding a ring on the beach. “There has to be a story in that old brush,” he said. “It could be someone’s wedding hat, who knows.”

Back in the days when the streets of Halifax were a sea of hats.

RELATED:

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories