When I was a kid in the seventies, we had a set of Britannica encyclopedias bound in pebbly burgundy leather. As part of the set, my parents also ordered the Book of Year, which meant that every year, my parents received a volume summarizing the events and discoveries of the previous year.
I liked looking at the Book of the Year more than the regular volumes. The year books had lots of interesting pictures, and unlike random encyclopedia volume H-J, each of these books was a complete whole.
One day as I was looking them over, I took out the one covering 1968.
“Don’t look at that one,” my mother said. “Lots of bad things happened that year.”
It’s true when we think of 1968 in America, we think of the assassination of MLK, the demonstrations at the Democratic convention, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the continuing Vietnam war. The counterculture was raging, with hippies and drug use and psychedelic rock.
But “counterculture” must have something to run counter to, "square culture." And square culture was raging too in 1968. Richard Nixon was campaigning for President and would go on to win. Though “Hey Jude” was the Billboard top song for the year, orchestral instrumental “Love is Blue” was number two and “Honey” by Bobbie Goldsboro was number three.
When I saw this hat in the antique store, I pegged it right away as from the sixties: the material (plastic-coated straw), the shape (a modified turban). I have a weakness for light blue hats (see My Best Friend’s Wedding Hat, the Blue Straw Hat with Sequins). This one was very reasonably priced ($6.00!) and looked good on me. Plus, it was my birthday! I decided to buy it, even though I had no need for another light blue summer hat.
What clinched the deal, though, was that in the group of hatboxes below the hats, I saw one that I believe must have belonged with this very hat. Branded Marty’s, Wooster Ohio, the hat box top also had, written in ballpoint pen: Blue Summer, 1968.
Although I would have guessed this hat to be a couple of years older, more like 1965, I figured this had to be the blue hat’s box. And though the hat box, sold separately, cost almost as much as the hat itself, I HAD to get them both.
Later, I discovered that the box still contained the original receipt, marked paid, from June 1. No year given, but I assume the original owner marked up the box with the year.
And get this—I actually paid a dollar less for the hat than she did, though of course, she got the box for free.
I often feel a vintage hat is a time capsule. Fifty-three years ago, a woman in Ohio bought this hat. I don’t picture her as having gone to the Summer of Love, not with this hat. She was square culture, not counterculture. She probably went to church, or had a job where she had to look nice, and needed a stylish blue hat. She might have been black or white, old or young. She might have known someone fighting in Vietnam, a brother or son or boyfriend. If she voted, she might have voted for Nixon (who took 58% of the vote in that county) or Humphrey (37%). Hopefully, she didn’t vote for George Wallace, who got 7%.
I picture her in this hat during her summer outings: a party where she ate appetizers made on Ritz crackers, a philharmonic concert at the town bandstand, a church supper with jello salad and red punch that stained her lips. Maybe she wore it on a date to an Italian restaurant with checkered tablecloths, a candle stuck in a chianti bottle, and Dean Martin records playing in the background.
Because even against a year of great social unrest, of societal upheaval and its backlash, people still went to work, attended church, dated, packed lunches for their kids. Bought blue summer hats and lived the best lives they could. Living through another such time of upheaval, I feel as sense of kinship with the hat's original owner. As the news is full of pandemic outbreaks, voter suppression laws, refugees fleeing war and climate disaster, urgent marches for black lives and women's rights, I put on my blue hat (and my mask) and move forward.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and nonfiction and collects hats. In this blog she vows to wear (not just model, but wear out of the house) every one of her hats, blogging about their histories and their meanings for her.