Stovepipe Style Hat (1840 – 1880) owned by Judge Joseph Brandon Nickel of Macomb
This extraordinary stovepipe hat is made of beaver fur and once belonged to Judge Joseph Brandon Nickel, who lived in Macomb from 1862 till his death in 1885.
The hat was donated to the museum by Martin Calvert, who recently passed away, and was a lifetime member of the Western Illinois Museum. The hat on display was a family heirloom of the Calvert family, once belonging to Judge Joseph Brandon Nickel (born 1808 – died 1885). The Nickel family and the Calvert family share common ancestors and the hat was passed down from Judge Nickel, through generations before ending up with Mr. Calvert. In 1982, Calvert decided to give the beaver stovepipe hat a permanent home, donating it to the museum where has been preserved and protected.
The hat on display is considered a stovepipe style, a term coined because it resembles the shape of stovepipes of the era. The stovepipe hat was a departure from a top hat which is slightly flared and not as tall. Top hats became popular in 1850 by Prince Albert of England. The stovepipe style top hat was an American variation of the top hat and was popularized by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency. Making a stovepipe hat, like the one on display, was a laborious and costly process. Because of beaver skin’s waterproof properties, it was the preferred material for stovepipe hats, and the high demand nearly wiped out the beaver population in America by 1900.
Working class men wore top hats made of rabbit fur but beaver skin hats were usually worn by the upper-class or those aspiring to upper-class. It is said that Lincoln acquired his stovepipe hat to give himself a more “lawyerly” credibility as he began his legal career. A fine beaver skin hat was a prized possession that could, due to their sturdiness, be worn for a lifetime and often bequest in wills to the next generation. Beaver skin hats remained popular, until the mid-nineteenth century when the manufacture of silk hats expanded and fashion began to favor silk over beaver skin for men's headwear.
Judge Joseph Brandon Nickel was born in Kentucky in 1808, and he moved to Indiana as young man. He was elected county surveyor and then state senator. Nickel moved to Missouri in 1843, living there for 19 years before moved to Macomb in 1862. In 1863 and 1864 he was elected county surveyor of McDonough County. He was then elected and served as the county judge for four years from 1869-1873. In the “History of McDonough County” of 1885 there is this account of the deceased Judge Nickel, “He was a man of conscientious principles and of severe convictions of duty; and his strict sense of honor guided his every action toward his fellow men. His loyalty to his friends was a marked characteristic of his nature. In him the loss of one is felt who will always be remembered for the good he has done.” A magnificent hat such as this would be a mark of a well-respected man of the late 1800’s.
From an essay by Heather Munro