The other day someone brought me a top hat supposed to have once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. I had never doubted that Poe would have worn a hat. Fashion plates from Graham’s Magazine (which Poe edited) and other popular magazines of the day showed men in top hats, and, as seen in the below illustration from an 1842 almanac, even a lawless gang wore top hats while murdering people.
In fact, the surviving photographs of Poe often show the tell-tale signs of “hat head” in which the hair is flattened down on top and sticks out, mullet-like, in the back. Of course, he took his hat off for his photos and portraits, and only one photo even shows what appears to be the edge of a hat. That does not provide a very clear picture of the kind of hat he would have worn, but we can probably make some educated guesses based on the fashions of Poe’s day.
A gentleman’s hat at the time might have been made of beaver fur or silk, which was gradually growing in popularity by the 1840s. During the 1840s and 1850s, hats were getting especially tall, as can be seen in the photo below.
Using a reproduction of one of William Abbott Pratt’s daguerreotypes, taken in Richmond in September 1849, I have envisioned how Poe may have looked in his top hat.
Top hats were not the only gentlemen’s hats available at the time. This illustration from the first printing of Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug” (1842) shows a man on the left wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
Some people who saw Poe on his summer 1849 visit to Richmond describe him wearing just such a hat to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. A Richmonder at the time later wrote, “I was in Richmond in 1849, and remember Mr. Poe, with his white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest, and broad Panama hat.” Here is a photograph showing how he would have looked wearing it.
I regret I cannot tell if Poe ever used the hat shown to me. The owner could tell me nothing of its provenance, so I had no evidence tying it to Poe. Although someone had written the name “Poe” on the inside of the hat, there are several people with than name. To make matters worse, someone wrote the date “1850” in the hat, and, if the date is correct, the piece dates to a year after Edgar Allan Poe’s death. Of course, we do not know who wrote that in the hat or why they wrote it. Maybe more evidence will become available to help us determine just whose hat this was.
There is no telling what ever happened to Poe’s hat. When he was found at a Baltimore polling place four days before his death, someone had already stolen it and replaced it with a cheaper one. As a witness, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, later wrote, Poe’s “hat, or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange, was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled.” It appears someone may have purloined Poe’s hat and likely disposed of it at some point without ever realizing (or caring) that it had once belonged to a famous poet.