Thank you all for more wonderful responses! I'm so proud I thought of this. It's always a lot of fun.
This weekend is Jour de Fet, or "The Days of Celebration" in Ste. Genevieve. I wasn't able to take any photos because I was working so much, but I did receive a very precious gift from a friend.
This is an original 1830s beaver felt hat. Beaver was once king of the fur trade, more valuable than anything else. The reason? There was a huge demand for felt clothing, and being naturally waterproof, beaver made a fine choice. Beaver felt clothing became popular in Europe around 1500.
By the time Ste. Gen was established in 1735, most of Europe's beaver were near extinction. North America seemed brimming with infinite resources. Long hunters like Daniel Boone would paddle out to places like Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas to get the furs, which were then shipped to hatting factories on the east coast. A beaver hat could easily fetch $10 a piece, while a wool hat might only go for $1.
There was a problem: the manufacturing process involved a substance called mercury nitrite, which released toxic vapors. This caused permanent brain damage that led to many cases of insanity, hence the expression "mad as a hatter." Even so, it was a thriving industry that provided thousands of jobs to poor immigrants fresh off the boat. Lewis Carol based his fictional character on this well-known occupational hazard.
By the 1860s, silk was killing the beaver trade. You no longer had to pay all of those people to trap the animals, ship them, then manufacture them into the product. Just get a few worms and you're set.
My friend brought the hat to me when I was working. I didn't have a period costume and he told me to wear it while giving tours. I did...once, afraid my sweat would ruin it. At the end of the day, I told him some of the questions people had asked me and he said, "Well, I think I'm going to give that to you."
Words failed me.
My friend happens to be a professional antique dealer who specializes in high dollar items. No garage sale junk in his line of work! I was touched to be given something so old and so beautiful. Once I get a hat stand, I'll put it in a prominent place.
It's been a good weekend.
Power to the pen!