The Stetson Mansion

1717 Spring Garden Street: the mansion that cowboy hats built

At 1717 Spring Garden Street is a townhome occupied for ten years by a Philadelphia success story: John B. Stetson. Currently the house is divided into four condominiums, ranging from 1100 to 1600 square feet and in assessed market value from $300-400,000. This article will look at Stetson the man, hat maker, and philanthropist.

The foyer at 1717 Spring Garden Street with richly carved wood, stained glass, and, of course, a Stetson hat. For a two-minute real estate sales video of one of the condos, see here.

John Batterson Stetson was born in 1830 in Orange, New Jersey, one of twelve children of a hat maker. He apprenticed briefly with his father, but due to ill health, he moved out west to experience fresh air and a more rugged life. Legend has it that during a rainstorm in Colorado, he fashioned a tent out of animal fur via a felting process, and extended this process to making tall crowned, wide brimmed hats, which were a hit out west. 

He moved back east and settled in Philadelphia in 1865, setting up a one-room hat repair shop at 7th and Callowhill Streets. In 1870 he bought a row home at 4th and Montgomery Streets, and expanded there initially by buying up the attached row homes and knocking out connecting walls, then building a dedicated factory in 1874. Instead of making hats that competed with established Philadelphia hatters in the market, he decided to concentrate on light-weight but sturdy hats for the outdoorsman, and marketed his hats out west. His best seller was his "Boss of the Plains," and his eventual best advertisements in the eastern market were celebrity cowboys who were putting on shows on the east coast. Production grew rapidly.

Lowly beginnings at 7th and Callowhill Streets in 1865.
Stetson factory in 1870 in the "suburbs" at 4th and Montgomery.
Stetson factory in 1894. The clock tower is at the diagonal intersection of North 4th and Cadwallader Streets.
The factory complex with auditorium, library, gymnasium, and hospital would expand to become an early 20th century rival to today's Google headquarters.
Stetson factory complex at 4th and Montgomery Streets at its peak around 1917, turning out 11,000 hats each day.
It covered nine acres of ground, but had a total of 32 acres of floor space within.

Cowboys were Stetson's first market. The myth of the cowboy extended his market. Philadelphian Owen Wister consolidated his oral stories told at the Philadelphia Club at 13th and Walnut and published The Virginian in 1902. Book covers always included the white Stetson hat on this laconic but heroic figure. An actor from Pennsylvania, Tom Mix, starred in 291 cowboy movies from 1909 to 1935, always the hero, always in a Stetson. Stetsons were sold to the United States Army as well as overseas militaries. Stetson production peaked in 1917 at 3.7 million hats thanks to contracts with multiple governments. His was the largest hat factory in the world, with 5,500 employees.

In addition, Stetson made women's hats and men's fedoras, the latter becoming quite popular in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. His net profit margins were 32 percent of sales by 1906, the year of Stetson's death.

Silent film actor Tom Mix in 1925, wearing a Stetson. White, of course.
Major General Robert Baden Powell of Britain's South African Constabulary around 1900, wearing a Stetson. Baden Powell placed an order for 10,000 Stetsons for his troops, an order shipped to him in six weeks.
Baden Powell founded the Boy Scouts in England in 1907 and influenced the founding of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. The Boy Scouts of America building on Winter Street just west of the Franklin Institute was built in 1926. The Stetson factory had its own Boy Scout troop.

Stetson was a shrewd businessman as well as a generous employer who had an interest in his workers' well-being. His wages were above scale and yearly bonuses, a form of profit sharing, came to be expected. He provided an on-site hospital at his factory, and had a prepaid health plan with all health care needs met for $1 every three months, free if necessary. Below-market rate mortgages were supplied to his employees by the John B. Stetson Building and Loan Association. There were weekly orchestra concerts and education events almost nightly at his 5,500-person capacity auditorium, the largest auditorium in Philadelphia when built in 1906. There were sports fields on his campus, a gymnasium, a library, a chapel, a Sunday school and kindergarten, an inexpensive cafeteria, classes for immigrants, and generous apprenticeship programs (basically a paid internship). He believed a happy and healthy worker was a better worker, and also wanted to keep the unions out of his shop, which he accomplished during his lifetime. The progressive labor movement always saw Stetson's system as a variant of a feudal system, with the lives of the workers carefully controlled by the employer. It was not until the Depression forced benefit cutbacks and enhanced production efficiency methods that unionization efforts picked up, resulting in a strike and union recognition in 1936.

Factory floor around 1910. The factory integrated all aspects of hat production in one site, excluding the acquisition of the 16 million animal pelts used each year at its peak.
The process of mass-producing Stetson felt hats can be compared in two ten-minute videos, one from 1913 here and one from 2015 here.
The work in 1913, though industrialized, still required repetitive work by thousands of workers in conditions that would be today considered unacceptable. Although neurological damage from mercury fumes was a hazard of the trade (viz. "mad as a hatter"), I found no reports of such concerns at the Stetson factory.
Hats being trimmed. This involved sewing in the satin lining, the leather inner band, and the decorative outer band.
1910 Christmas assembly
Advertisement for the retail sales shop at 1108 Chestnut Street.
The neighborhood connection: this ad was placed in the 1900 yearbook of the Philadelphia Dental College, which was at 18th and Buttonwood Streets and extended in mid-block to Hamilton Street. This is the site of the parking garage for North x Northwest Apartments today.
In 1913, the Stetson retail sales store moved a block west to 1224 Chestnut Street. In 1924 a wall into the building to the south was removed to extend the store to Sansom Street. The facade on Chestnut Street has been replaced, but the Sansom Street facade is still intact. The Stetson Retail Store closed in 1968.
The lovely back entrance at 1225 Sansom Street is still with us. It is now a restaurant ablaze with the Stetson name on the building.

Meanwhile, back at the mansion....

As noted in the article on the Hoopes mansion at 1733 Spring Garden Street (see here), Barton Hoopes had purchased all the land from 17th to 18th and from Spring Garden to Brandywine Streets in 1872. He then sold off residential-sized parcels, one of which was acquired by Stetson in 1878. Stetson lived here for ten years during his company's rapid growth years. He sold in 1888 and moved into a larger suburban mansion in the Elkins Park neighborhood just north of Philadelphia. His move there preceded by a decade that of other famous gilded age mansion-builders like Widenor, Breyer, and Elkins.

You know you are a success when you name your house.
Stetson named his Elkins Park home Idro. The house was sold during the Depression and subsequently razed. A nearby street, Stetson Road, is the only reminder of its existence.

Stetson was a great philanthropist, caring for the community as well as his employees. In 1878, along with John Wanamaker of department store fame and W. Atlee Burpee of seed fame, Stetson established the Sunday Breakfast Association, providing a meal with a dose of Christianity to the poor on Sunday mornings. This organization, now at 302 North 13th Street, provides meals to men, women, and children 365 days a year, and is the largest emergency homeless shelter in Philadelphia.

Stetson began to spend winters in Deland, Florida, building another mansion there in 1886.  While there he became a benefactor for Deland Academy, founded in 1883 and named after New York philanthropist Henry Addison Deland. Once Deland suffered financial reversals, Stetson took over as the principal funder of the college, which reciprocated by changing the name to Stetson University in 1889. Stetson spent his last 20 winters in Deland, dying there in 1906.

The John B. Stetson mansion in Deland, Florida. It is now a private residence, but is open for tours at $22 per person. See 2-minute video tour here.
The interior echoes the interior of 1717 Spring Garden Street, with carved wood and parquet floors. The two buildings had the same architect.

Unfortunately for hatters, fashion trends change. After the 1950's the hat, both for men and women, became less of a fashion necessity. Many say the last nail in the coffin for the hat was the appearance of John F. Kennedy being sworn in as president on a cold January day in 1961, preferring to show off his full head of hair instead of donning a top hat like prior presidents.

 

The Stetson factory complex in Philadelphia, like the job opportunities and population in the Kensington area, gradually declined, and the factory closed in 1971. The Stetson company donated the neglected real estate to the City of Philadelphia in 1977.  Parts of the complex were demolished in 1979, and the auditorium, gymnasium, and clock tower building burned down in 1980. The only remaining building is the Stetson Hospital, now a community health center specializing in drug addiction.

Stetson hats are still being made, along with other clothing accessories, but under licensing agreements with other manufacturers only.

Classier times in a sea of hats: Hard to believe people dressed up to go to a baseball game 
Clock tower building in 1979, one year before burning down.
After the fire, the bell that had been in the tower was acquired by the Atwater Kent Museum, and was briefly on display at the Temple Contemporary Art Gallery in the fall of 2019. The bell had been cast by the Whitechapel foundry, the same English firm that had cast the Liberty Bell.
Stetson Hospital on the 1700 block of North 4th Street, as seen in 1925. Note the lettering and dates above the cornice at the top left of the building. The narrow building on the right served as nurses quarters and has been demolished, but otherwise the building looks much the same today. It is now a community health center and is the last of the 25 buildings on the factory site. For a nice Hidden City article on the hospital, see here.
Nameplate at top of building as seen today. The dates and name on the Stetson Hospital, completed in 1905, pay tribute to the dispensary that had been relocating around the factory site over the preceding 17 years.
This is the only known photo of John B. Stetson in a hat (circled in red), taken at Elizabeth Hall on the campus of Stetson University in 1895. 
Elizabeth Hall was named in honor of Stetson's wife, with whom he had three children.
Stetson mausoleum in West Laurel Hill cemetery.
The few markers of Stetson in the area include the Stetson Hospital building, Stetson Road in Elkins Park, the Stetson Building at 1225 Sansom Street, the John B. Stetson Charter Middle School at East Allegheny and B Streets (about two miles northeast of the factory site), and this mausoleum.
And one more tip of the hat to Stetson.
Frederic Remington did for the cowboy mythos in painting and sculpture what Owen Wister did in literature. Remington's bronze, The Cowboy, cast and installed in 1908, rides the high plains above Kelly Drive in Philadelphia...wearing a Stetson.

Further reading:

24 page history from the Stetson University perspective, see here.

Business aspects, see here.

32 page Stetson bio from 1911, see here.

A beautiful 192-page book on Stetson hats here, also available at the Philadelphia library.

authored by Joe Walsh, May 2020

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