“Art” statutes, i.e. guilds that gathered workers and entrepreneurs of the same profession, were the first documents concerning the hatter’s trade.
At the time of the Free Cities, the economy had picked up after the crisis of the middle ages, labour organizations had been further improved and commercial trade was blooming. Chapeliers de fleur, de fautre e de paon were recognized in France for their feathered hats. As in Italy, milliners were initially part of a wool worker’s guild.
The first document that certifies the existence of an emerging Union of Handcraft Milliners dates back to 1280 in Venice, but it wasn’t until the post-Free Cities period, between the 1400’s and 1500’s, that independent associations developed. Around 1425 in Bologna, the first official statutes of the Honoured Group of Bolognese Milliners were drawn.
Other corporations were documented in Città di Castello, Savona, Palermo, Mantua, Brescia and Cremona. In 1742, the very same statute gathered the Universitas mercatorum biretorum and pilleorum.
The hatter’s shop was a precious patrimony handed down through generations from father to son together with the trademark and insignia. The 1700’s milliner was surrounded by an aura of respect. They possessed practical knowledge which found expression in constantly improved hand made crafts that were works of ingenuity and manual ability. They were connoisseurs of fur, an almost intangible material of vast varieties.
They moulded and created their work of art with water and fire, both legendary and symbolic elements. The familiarity of chemical substances having archaic names and terrible toxic powers (such as vitriol and arsenic) made them mysterious people. The process of fur tanning with chemicals was secret, but without it the fur was lifeless and not adapt for hat processing. 1
The gust of fresh air that freed Europe with the French revolution marked the end of corporatism that tied bosses and workers to the same guild. In 1787, in Milan and Monza, the first Chambers of Commerce were created in substitution of the corporations. Milliners became more enterprising and began travelling to France.
In 1873, the first laboratories able to create valuable felt hats were created in Turin and Monza, and they became an important production and exportation point for wool hats. The Universal Society of Milliners was established in Italy, as in France, and gathered workers with the pledge of “love and brotherhood”.
The Pious were established between the 1700’s and the 1800’s. They were institutions where religious practice was united to the teaching of the milliner trade. The ones in Turin, Milan and Monza were placed side by side to the Università Lavoranti Cappellari created in Rome in 1757. The second half of the 1800’s was characterized by a progressive industrialization of hat factories and simultaneously by the strenuous defence of the milliner’s professionalism, one which was being threatened by automation. Mutual Assistance societies were created to help workers while entrepreneurs created the Hat Maker’s Union.
1. L. SPINA (a cura di), L’arte del cappello in valle Cervo, Sandro Maria Rosso Editore, Biella Piazzo, 1990, pg. 13