(untitled)

Conserving The Past: The Story of a Hat

Beaver top hat with case, ca. late 1800s

Beaver top hat with case, ca. late 1800s

The Hudson's Bay Company Corporate Collection of artefacts currently numbers over a thousand items. Following the success of the recently opened Hudson's Bay Company Galleries in Victoria and Montreal, it is only a matter of time until other galleries are opened in other locations. With this expectation, Heritage Services is constantly on the lookout for new artefacts to add to the collection. Sometimes, however, there is far more involved in presenting an artifact than simply buying it and displaying it. As an example, let's consider the recent purchase of a man's top hat and accompanying hat case.

This hat and case were purchased specifically for use in a display. Since beaver fur, the most important commodity in the early history of the Company, was primarily used to make men's hats, it was felt that a vintage beaver top hat would be an appropriate item to link the Company's early history and its current role as retailer. Because Hbc sold its furs at auction and did not actually make hats, it was felt that any good quality hat would be appropriate for purchase. The search for a good candidate began.

Auctions, antique stores and collectors are all good places to look for items, but e-Bay, the online auction service, is often the most convenient source when a specific product is wanted. During the time we were considering this purchase, there were dozens of beaver top hats to choose from. The choice was quickly narrowed by selecting only those offered with a case and which were in relatively good condition. What tipped the scales in favour of this particular hat was its provenance, or history: the seller knew that the hat had a Canadian connection and had been owned by a dentist in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Detail of flaking on hat case

Detail of flaking on hat case

When the hat arrived in the Toronto office, it was immediately evident that it was not ready to be put on display. The leather surface of the case was flaking badly and when the hat was removed from the case, a small dead grub was discovered inside. Insects can wreak havoc with any collection so the hat and its case were immediately isolated and professional advice sought. The treatment recommended by Elizabeth Griffin, an object and textile conservator, was two-fold. First, the flaky surface of the hat case was consolidated to prevent further material loss. Once the object was stable, the second part of the treatment proceeded - the hat and case were treated together for insects.

For this phase chemical treatments and freezing were both ruled out as potentially damaging to the artefacts. That left the option of isolation in a low-oxygen atmosphere. Basically, the items were placed in a sealed container and the oxygen removed so that whatever insects might be left would suffocate. The objects were then vacuumed and brushed to remove debris and improve their appearance. Once stabilized and free from damaging pests, the hat and case were ready to go on display.

If you have an artifact which you think belongs in the corporate collection, and possibly, one day, on display, please Contact Us.

 

Search Careers Shop About More