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The Life of John B. Stetson

The man whose name would become synonymous with hats, John B. Stetson, was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1830. He was one of twelve children, and left school early to learn hat-making from his father, a hatter. Shortly after beginning his apprenticeship, he fell ill. He was sent west to recuperate. It was there that he was inspired to create a hat he would call "The Boss of the Plains."

Upon returning east in 1865, he opened a one-room hat repair business. He soon expanded into the manufacture of hats. Known for the quality of his hats, Stetson’s business would grow rapidly, forcing him to move to new and larger accommodations.

Stetson also engaged in a couple of business practices that were considered radical at that time. First, starting in 1869, he took the bold new step of employing traveling salesmen. He also expanded his business out of downtown Philadelphia, another departure from accepted business practices of the day. Stetson’s new location in northeast Philadelphia was 12 acres, with five- and six-story factory buildings. He provided a secure working environment for his employees, with sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers and construction made of brick. Stetson produced everything in-house, from building machinery, making felt, making hat bands, and printing labels and advertisements. At its height, the plant employed 5,400 workers, and manufactured 11,000 hats per day.

As Stetson’s business grew, so did his philanthropy. For his employees, he provided a generous apprenticeship program, complete with above-scale wages and bonuses, a Sunday school (which he later expanded to include the community), activity rooms, a parlor for evening socials, a library, citizenship classes for his immigrant workers, a gymnasium, and a hospital. The hospital contained a skilled staff and modern equipment, and was so popular, it expanded and was opened to the community, as well. For as little as $1.00, a person could receive three months of medical care. For those who couldn’t afford that, service was provided at no cost. He also donated to a university in DeLand, Florida (now Stetson University), where he had a winter home. John B. Stetson died in 1906.bnradd

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