Monday, March 01, 2010

Knox the Hatter

Charles Knox founded his hat company at 110 Fulton Street in Lower Manhattan in 1838 and prospered by selling beaver hats to antebellum New Yorkers, but his business foundered at mid-century. His son, Edward Knox, a Civil War Hero who fought at Gettysburg and was feted by Congress and the Grand Army of the Republic as "the most popular and handsomest officer of the encampment," took things over upon his recovery from war wounds and turned the company around. One of young Edward's initiatives was a move into the hat-manufacturing business, opening a hat factory in Brooklyn at Grand Avenue and St. Mark's Place. Vertical integration served the company well, and a scant 10 years later Knox moved his headquarters north to 5th Avenue amongst high society's finest merchants, including Tiffany and Lord & Taylor. The Beaux-Arts building he commissioned from architect John H. Duncan, now a component of the HSBC Tower, was landmarked in 1980.

But what of his Brooklyn factory in the Heights? Originally adorned with a Seth Thomas clock tower that bore the inscription "Knox the Hatter" (click here for a fantastic etching of the original structure), the shop turned out headwear that still draws attention from hat aficianados. Shuttered after the Second World War (as was much industry in Brooklyn), the building decayed into the 1980s, when the NYTimes described it as "vacant and vandalized." However, the building was given a second life as affordable housing by developer Alfred Thompson, who also converted the Studebaker building on Bedford for the same purpose, and today stands, sans clock tower, as a proud, functional relic of the neighborhood's light-industrial past.

In the era of industrial parks and loft-conversions, it's hard to envision the 19th-century city, before expanding mass transit and public-health concerns encouraged the segregation of industry and residences. The Knox Building, along with the Nassau and Consumer's Park Breweries on Franklin and the Pirika Chocolate Company on Dean Street (which gets pretty industrial between Grand and Franklin) are reminders that people used to live within walking distance of their employers, particularly those who couldn't afford transit. Sure, living next door to a factory wasn't exactly good news, but it created a different world, one that those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about community can find valuable lessons in, as well as cautionary tales. Cohesion is a lot easier to come by when everyone lives and works in the same 10 blocks, and though rightfully vilified, not all factory employers were evil: some even made efforts to provide decent housing and amenities for their nearby employees. These provisions could be exploitative in and of themselves (company housing in particular), but then again, it's not as though today's biggest employers are putting significant money into improving the neighborhoods where their lowest-paid workers reside.


  1. And likewise, slumlords with no direct relationship with factory owners can be just as exploitative. It's division of labor, plus you don't have to worry as much about your workers colluding with one another in their free time.

  2. I believe that you can find Knox the Hatter in its Fulton Street location by looking at this photo. From the upper left corner, go down about 28%, and then go to you right about 60%.

    Great sign.

  3. Sorry, I see now that Knox the Hatter had moved to 212 Broadway. . . .

  4. There are great photographs of the old Knox Building in Mary Black's "Old New York in Early Photographs." The photographs, from 1890 and 1895, show that the building was located on the corner of Broadway and Fulton, confirming the 212 Broadway address.