Monday, October 5, 2015

Plug Hat - Bowler or Top Hat?

I came upon an interesting fashion problem while working on our family tree. Now I am the first to admit that fashion is not one of my strong points, so I'm hoping someone might have some insight they'd like to share. But first, I'll present the problem and the facts that I've found.

Plug Hats of Plug Mount

The Draper ancestors came up from the New England states and settled in Upper Canada in 1804 when it was still wilderness and Indian trails. According to the Georgina Pioneer Village on the Virtual Museum site, it wasn't until 1829 when the mail coach started running into the area. Furthermore, it states, The town of Belhaven, formerly known as "Plug Mount," so named after a gentleman who wore a "Plug" or Stove Pipe Top-Hat when he met the daily coach, was situated at a central point in the township.

The local history book, Belhaven Then & Now, confirms this info by saying, Belhaven was originally known as Plug Mount. It was given this name because it was built on a hill and one of the leading citizens Mr. Noah Gager wore a plug hat. 

Noah Gager is my husband's 3x great-grandfather, born 9 Sep 1789 in Fishkill, Dutchess, New York, who settled with his family in the Belhaven area in 1817. Although I don't have a photograph of Noah, I have one of his brother, Nathan Gager, who stayed in the States, and is wearing a top hat in the photograph on the right.

It is conceivable then, that Noah's hat was a similar style, except I've always thought a plug hat had a round top like a bowler or derby.

The York County Directory for 1837 shows Noah Gager living on Concession 5, Lot 16 - the farm at the bottom of the Belhaven hill. This is confirmed elsewhere in the Belhaven book which states, Mr. Gager was the owner in 1830. He always wore a plug hat and white gloves when he met the daily coach. Later, Mr. Draper owned the farm and he, too, carried on this tradition."

And that would be Elemuel Draper (1840-1907) who bought part of his Great Uncle Noah's farm in 1868. According to another entry in the Belhaven book... Mr. Elemuel Draper, who also lived on this farm carried on the tradition by wearing a plug hat, white gloves and driving a fancy team of bay horses.

Belhaven, North Gwillimbury, York County, Ontario Canada, looking south, about 1900

Plug Hat Definitions

So what exactly is a plug hat? Webster's online dictionary as well as the online Free Dictionary (out of Princeton University) show the drawing and definition on the right.

Both the The HAT Magazine and tell us to see Top Hat for a definition of a Plug Hat, and when you do, you see this:
Top hat: Man’s tall cylindrical hat with a narrow brim, made of silk plush. Very early top hats were made of beaver felt. Also called a “Plug Hat” in the USA.

Clear as mud, right? Aiming for a more accurate historical definition, I next searched through GoogleBooks and found the following statement in The Clothier and Furnisher: Volume 17January 1, 1888: The colloquial term "plug" was bestowed on the tall hat simple because of its cylindrical form, and has clung to it with more tenacity than many of the other slang synonyms which have fastened with a looser grip upon the stylish hat. The description then goes on to talk about the origin of the silk plug hat versus a beaver one.

The Working Class

On the other hand, GoogleBooks also brought up several references to plug hats in publications relating to Canadian working people and the labour movement. In particular...

Bill Atkinson, barber, 1917. Courtesy of
the Chapleau Public Library. 
Canadian Working-class History: Selected Readings by Laurel Sefton MacDowell and Ian Walter Radforth has this to say in the chapter about the early years of Labour Day Parades in Canada: Several other groups presented themselves in identical outfits: the firemen from the railway car shops in their white shirts and black felt hats; the printers in their navy blue yachting caps (the apprentices wore brown); the barbers in their plug hats and white jackets.

The photo at right is courtesy of the historical photographs of Vince Crichton, Chapleau Public Library. It shows Main Street in Chapleau, Ontario after a snow storm on May 5, 1917, with the man in the centre being Bill Atkinson, a barber. 

Also, in Working People, Fifth Edition: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement by Desmond Morton, originally published 1937, we read, On September 12, sixty-five hundred workers marched into the exhibition grounds behind seventeen bands. Office employees of the Toronto News and Globe wore white plug-hats, while reporters from the rival Toronto Mail wore brown derbies.

Plug Hat, Tails, and Cane
Narcisse and Josephine Cantin. Courtesy of St Joseph
Museum and Archives

I found the following photograph and information on the St Joseph Museum and Archives in Zurich, Ontario about a man of vision in the form of Narcisse Cantin (1870-1940), Inventor and Businessman: 
He was always well-dressed, sporting black tails and a plug hat and carrying a cane in later life.

Honestly, if it wasn't for the accompanying photograph, I would have assumed that Mr. Cantin wore a top hat.

A Hat Maker's Perspective

History in the Making is a reproduction period clothing and accessory company which ensures historical accuracy in style, fabrics and construction. I checked their web page for civilian hats and found both bowler and top hats, but not a plug hat. So, I emailed them and asked. Stan Boyle emailed back and said, "Just talked with the hatmaker - a plug hat is another term used in place of top hat - plug hat/top hat same thing."

Finally - an answer from an expert. Thank you!

This past June found me researching our family history at the Georgina Pioneer Village & Archives in Ontario where I came across a personal diary which hasn't been released to the general public yet, but is an excellent source of history for the local area. 

The diary states: In Belhaven, on Lot 15, Conc 5, is the home of Elemuel Draper, of the "Plug Mount" top hat. His house and barn are still standing.

Elemuel's house and barn was still standing later that day when I drove past it and took a series of very special photographs...

What is your interpretation of a plug hat? Care to share?


Anita Mae Draper is published in Guideposts Books, A CUP OF CHRISTMAS CHEER 2013 & 2014 series which includes Here We Come A-Wassailing, a finalist in The Word Guild’s 2015 Word Awards. Anita's novella, Romantic Refinements, contained in AUSTEN IN AUSTIN, Volume 1, WhiteFire Publishing, will be released on January 16, 2016. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband and the youngest of their four children where she writes stories set in the American and Canadian mid-west.  She is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita at


  1. Sounds to me like the term was loosely used, Anita. Thanks for an interesting post. Your ancestor sounds like a character.

    1. I agree on both counts, Susan. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. How exciting to find so many references to your ancestors during your quest! One thing I've found over the years is that terms can change markedly from place to place, so it could be that what was a "plug hat" to your ancestors evoked a different image in the minds/eyes of people who lived elsewhere. And maybe it depends on the shape of the "plug" they had in mind when comparing the hat ... either way, fascinating fashion post, Anita. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for sharing that info, Stephanie. I guessed it was a regional thing, but never thought about the difference in perceptions of a 'plug'. Now that would certainly makes sense! :)

  3. And Plug Hat Road north of the Toronto Zoo is named for the hat or a person who wore one?

    1. Oh, that's interesting. I'll have to check on that one. Thanks!