London Trivia No. 1: The Origin Of The Bowler Hat

London, Observatory


It’s part of a fantasy London of umbrellas and cockneys, but I have only ever seen a handful of people wearing these, usually ironically. The idea of showing England as a country of bowler-hatted bankers is as absurdly anachronistic as imagining Americans riding through towns on horses – but the image persists. Why?

Well, it wasn’t called a bowler hat originally. It was a Coke (pronounced Cook) hat, after a man called Coke entered James Lock & Co, the St James St hatters, and asked them to design a hat that his gamekeepers would not get snagged on branches. It needed to be strong, too, and Coke jumped on the finished hat to test its strength. But it was a company called Bowler that produced the hat in large numbers and gave it the name that stuck. Soon, the City of London businessmen were all wearing them. But at Lockes, to this day, you must never call it a Bowler,

The Lewis Carroll idea of the ‘mad hatter’ comes from the fact that vbrain-damaging mercury was used in the hat’s felting process. The hats are once again undergoing a resurgence – as lights inspired by the iconic Magritte painting ‘Son of Man’.


11 comments on “London Trivia No. 1: The Origin Of The Bowler Hat”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    It wasn’t just hatters. Some lighthouses had their lights floated on a tank of mercury and there were a number of lighthousekeepers literally driven mad. I’m not sure whether it was lenses or what that floated on the tanks, but the madness was definitely there.

  2. snowy says:

    The most often referenced inspiration for ‘The Mad Hatter’ is Roger Crab. He may have sold hats for 3 years, but it is unlikely he ever made them. His reputation for madness may come from his other actions.

    He first became a celibate, vegan, then a soldier, during this short military career, he was wounded in the head, sentenced to death, repealled and imprisoned. It was after leaving the army, he was a haberdasher for a few years, before giving away all his possesions to become a hermit, though even this didn’t slow him down.

    [The age of the professional hermit as a ornament to a country park would not come for another 100 years.]

    In the latter years of his life he was a herbal doctor, which in part caused him to be accused of witchcraft. He was put in the stocks for not observing the Sabbath. Became a pacifist and a radical in the The Philadelphian Society. And still found the time to publish 4 short pamplets on various subjects including his life story.

    He died and was buried in Stepney.

    I had not heard of mercury being used as a sort of ‘thrust bearing’ but it makes sense given the enormous cost and weight of a hand cut fresnel lens.

    [If anyone remembers those ridged magnifying sheets, sold as book viewers or even further back as a gimmick to increase the size of a TV screen in the 1950’s, that’s a freznel lens.]

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Always wondered what those things were called. What were Carb’s dates?

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Carp, crap, Crab’s dates

  5. John Howard says:

    New glasses or slower fingers needed there Dan…

  6. snowy says:

    Roger Crab (1621 – September 11, 1680).

  7. glasgow1975 says:

    I might be remembering this wrong but on a recent QI I’m sure the bowler hat was cited as the most frequently worn hat in the ‘Wild West’ not the ‘cowboy hat’ . . .

  8. Alan G says:

    Glasgow – your memory is fine. I dunno about the Wild West but the bowler hat was very popular with New York gangs – the shape made it very effective head protection. The “Plug Uglies” would cram the hat with cloth and take it into battle.

  9. glasgow1975 says:

    I’m sure it was one of the ‘trick’ questions they always have, “What did cowboys wear on their heads?” with ‘cowboy hat’ setting off the klaxon and the answer being the bowler . . .

  10. glasgow1975 says:

    In the Americas

    The bowler, not the cowboy hat or sombrero, was the most popular hat in the American West, prompting Lucius Beebe to call it “the hat that won the West”. Both cowboys and railroad workers preferred the hat because it would not blow off easily in strong wind, or when sticking one’s head out the window of a speeding train. It was worn by both lawmen and outlaws, including Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and Billy the Kid. It is in America the hat came to be commonly known as the “Derby”, and Wild West outlaw Marion Hedgepeth was commonly referred to as “the Derby Kid”.


  11. Helen Martin says:

    On this side of the Atlantic that hat is pronounced derby rather than darby, of course. My understanding of hat treatment is that mercury was used in part of the work and that exposure to vapour resulted in madness. The fresnel lenses in lighthouses were turned by clockwork which was wound at least once a day. It was vital that there be proper timing of that rotation so floating the structure on mercury provided a virtually frictionless turning. Unfortunately the lamplight which was magnified by the lenses also emitted heat, which was transmitted to the mercury by convection and resulted in mercury vapour. If the chamber was not properly ventilated the lighthouse keeper could become subject to delusions, upon which some of them acted. If the delusion was that he could fly, the result was fatal. (I checked this with my resident authority.)

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