Straw hat factory in Hüntwangen, late 19th century.
Straw hat factory in Hüntwangen, late 19th century. Dorfmuseum Hüntwangen

The hat was good for the economy

In the 18th century, straw-weavers and hatmakers had a bad reputation in Switzerland. They were condemned as lazy. A century later, hat-making became a flourishing business.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

Country doctor Johann Caspar Hirzel was considered a philanthropist and was open to new ideas. But as far as he was concerned, straw hats were (ahem) the last straw. In the mid-18th century he spoke out fiercely against the advent of straw-weaving and the related hat-making industry. When peasant farmers preferred to sit around in their homes and weave straw instead of toiling in the fields, as they should be, Hirzel didn’t mince his words, using such choice terms as ‘time-wasting’ and ‘idleness’.

Import from the south

From the 16th century onwards, straw weaving began to flourish in Switzerland. In Ticino, in Aargau, in Obwalden and in the Rafzerfeld area of the Canton of Zurich, to name just a few regions, scores of families, but also what were known as Tauner, day-labourers who had few possessions and survived on Tagwan, the money they could earn for a day’s work, made trims for clothing, ornaments or straw hats. This piecework earned them a little extra to supplement their meagre pay from farming. We can only speculate as to how this sometimes delicate handicraft came to Switzerland. It is thought that Swiss mercenaries who had been in military service in northern Italy in the 16th century brought the art of straw weaving back to their homeland. Straw-weavers started to reap the rewards when straw hats became high-fashion items from the mid-19th century; there was no longer any talk of ‘time-wasting’ or ‘idleness’ – even though the workers in the ‘Lichthäuser’ (light houses) certainly had fun too. Artificial light was a rare and sometimes costly commodity. For that reason, people gathered to work in illuminated spaces that were open to the public, but also in private living rooms, and shared the light available there, which mostly came from candles and candelabra.
Millinery fashion in summer 1931.
Millinery fashion in summer 1931. Dorfmuseum Hüntwangen
Hat production in Hüntwangen, early 20th century.
Hat production in Hüntwangen, early 20th century. Dorfmuseum Hüntwangen

Innovative son of the Ritz family

Heinrich Ritz was born in 1838 in Hüntwangen, Canton of Zurich. The son of a door-to-door hat salesman, Heinrich was eager to learn and clever, and was already a hat weaver and seller by the age of 14. Heinrich seems to have been a good observer of current hat fashions, and the business did so well that he set up his first hat factory on the stairs and worked at home. In 1880 he bought a hat press and a straw hat machine, although felt hats were already being produced in the village at that stage in addition to the fine straw hats. In 1890 Heinrich Ritz built a factory that, in its heyday, employed between 80 and 100 people. The boss himself often went on the road to find out first-hand about the latest trends in hat fashion. His travels might take him to Paris, or Milan. After each of his visits to the international fashion fairs Heinrich Ritz brought home with him the license to make the latest hats, whether it was the Panama, the Canotier or the Florentine. At his factory, milliners sometimes designed their own creations. Ritz brought in the best of these milliners from Berlin, Vienna and Dresden.

Wigs and hairstyles sound the death knell

Heinrich Ritz considered it very important for people to wear hats. And he was not alone in that opinion. At times, straw hat production was Switzerland’s biggest export industry. But the bubble had to burst sometime – or, to put it another way, it was a mere ‘house of straw’. When wigs and new hairstyles started appearing on the scene as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, demand for the hats began to fall. With hairdressers creating ever more elaborate hairstyles for women, the hat industry fell on hard times. After World War II, in addition to stylishly coiffed hair, wigs also became popular headwear among the ladyfolk. The hair was now the real ornament.
Because of its shape, this hat is also called a ‘circular saw’.
Because of its shape, this hat is also called a ‘circular saw’. Pixabay

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