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Guben Protected / Well Hatted, Our Hat Industry, By Dr. Kersten, Gubener Zeitung June 1, 1935

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Guben Protected / Well Hatted

Our Hat Industry

By Dr. Kersten

The entire German hat industry, insofar as it is manufactured from scratch, is generally divided into three branches, the felt hat industry, also called wool and hair hat industry, the straw hat industry and the silk and collapsible top hat industry. The latter is based in Altenburg and the first in Bavarian Allgäu, the focus of the German wool and hair hat industry is undoubtedly in the Mark Brandenburg, in particular in Lower Lusatia and in the town of Guben. The felt hat industry in Guben characteristic feature is the production of felt and its processing into a hat.  There are pure wool hat companies, pure hair hat companies and companies that produce both types of felt hats, depending on the raw materials processed into felt. 

From a historical point of view, the development of the German wool hat industry started in Guben, the place that is still the stronghold of the German felt hat industry today. The fact that there was already a sizeable cloth industry in Lower Lusatia and a workforce that was familiar with the properties and processing of wool as a raw material had a major influence on the development of the wool hat industry in Guben. The preparation of the wool up to the production of the wool pile is the same for the manufacture of cloth and hats. From the headquarters in Guben, the wool hat industry, often based on cloth manufacture, found its way into other areas of the Brandenburg province and later expanded to other parts of the country.

The hair hat industry, i.e. the art of processing hare and rabbit hair into a felt and then into a hat, owes its development to the art of hair cutting and the invention, known since around the middle of the 18th century, of making the hair feltable by treating it with a stain. Haircutting is originally based in Flanders and France, where it was a thriving craft: towards the end of the 18th century it came to Germany; The first branches were in the Frankfurt (Main) area. The first production facilities for hair hats were therefore in southern Germany. It was only later that new foundations emerged in areas of the wool hat industry and currently both branches – the wool hat industry and the hair hat industry – are mostly to be found locally next to each other, due to the need to produce with trained skilled workers.

The Guben felt hat industry traces its origins back to the master hat maker Carl Gottlob Wilke (1796-1875), who was born in Forst and settled in Guben in 1822. Through persistent diligence and skillful adaptation to the requirements of fashion, he managed, despite some setbacks, to convert the original hat maker's workshop  into a mechanical operation in 1859 and in 1864 moved to the property where there is still today the hat factory C G Wilke. The invention of C G Wilke, made around 1854 and carefully guarded as a manufacturing secret for many years, was groundbreaking for the art of millinery, to make weatherproof and marketable hats solely from wool, while until then hats could only be made from hare or rabbit hair. The generations of the family that followed him understood how to actively expand the factory, so that it is still one of the largest and most respected companies in the hat industry.

During the 1870s, Apelius Cohn also established a branch of the Berlin-based hat clothing factory in Guben. Under the management of his brother-in-law Hermann Lewin, the company initially dealt mainly with the production of woolen felt hoods, but after just a few years it switched to the production of hats. On January 1, 1888, the company was transformed into the Berlin-Gubener Hutfabrik AG, to which a hair hat factory was affiliated in 1905. In 1907 the merger with Berthold Lißner's large hat factory, which had existed in Guben since 1889, took place. Finally, in 1913, the Berlin-Gubener Hutfabrik AG group was joined by Union Fez Factory G.m.b.H. affiliated as a manufacturer of Turkish Fez. The group of Berlin-Gubener Hutfabrik AG, which manufactures all products of the hat industry, i.e. men's and women's hats in wool, hair and velour, as well as felt hoods, is the largest hat manufacturing company in Germany; and gives a total of about 3,800 people bread and work.

At the beginning of the 1880s, the Steinke company was founded in Guben by the brothers Otto and Gustav Steinke, which developed into a respected hat factory. After multiple changes of owner and company name, it was renamed Gubener Hat Factory AG. While the company was known in the pre-war period for the quality of the stiff hats that were popular at the time, in recent years it has developed and expanded considerably as a women's hat factory. This company also owns the Gubener Hair and Velour Hat Factory AG, which, founded in the post-war period, deals with the production of hair and velour hats.

The hat factory Brecht & Fugmann was founded in 1914 shortly before the outbreak of war as a general partnership and was then called after its founders Brecht & Mathy. Instead of the partner Mathy, Rudolf Fugmann replaced Mathy as a partner in 1920 and since then the company has been called Brecht & Fugmann. In a relatively short time, through tireless work, this company succeeded in joining the ranks of the older companies on an equal footing in terms of the quality of its products and the number of employees.

There are now seven hat manufacturing companies in Guben, which, with 6,500 employees, comprise about two thirds of the entire German felt hat industry.

The wool and hair hat industry, with its ten thousand employees, is of course of little importance within the whole of German industry; but it plays a very important role within the specialist group of the German clothing industry, to which it essentially belongs. In contrast to the cloth industry, for example, it distinguishes itself as a distinctly fashion industry in that it produces a ready-made article which can be used as it leaves the factory. This entails a great complexity of production; because production depends at its roots on the international wool and hair markets, in its further course it is dependent on other industries, e.g. on the silk ribbon and hat leather industry, and in its patterns and new collections it ultimately has to, it wants to be successful, follow the prevailing fashion in terms of shape, color, quality and trimmings or bring out your own new fashion creations. It is therefore necessary to continuously and precisely monitor a large number of the most diverse factors in order to plan correctly and, above all, to have a clear overview of the development of conditions on foreign markets. It is also important to recognize new trends that are emerging in fashion in good time and to use them skillfully for production. This complexity in the running of the business corresponds to a complexity in the labor process; this in itself brings about a strong division of labor. So it happened that today there are almost no more "hat makers" in the old sense, who were made familiar with all the details of the art of hat making through a three-year apprenticeship and were then acquitted by the guild as journeyman hat makers, but that today there are generally "hat workers". who are divided into skilled workers and unskilled workers, who are also hired and trained for a specific activity and then remain in their particular occupation, for the most part on piecework wages. Only through the extensive division of labor, through the most precise control of the manufacture in the various departments from scratch to the finished hat, through trying out new techniques and through the complete exertion of all forces, has the Gubener hat industry succeeded in producing a product of such high quality as it is today's hat that indisputably enjoys the best reputation on the German hat market.

However, the Gubener hat industry does not only hold a leading position because of the quality of its products, but also in terms of numbers it ranks first in Germany in terms of production. It is estimated that it produces around ten million men's and women's felt hats a year. Even though there is a certain proportion of semi-finished products (so-called felt hoods), one can rightly claim that at least every second felt hat of German origin that is worn in Germany comes from Guben. But the hat industry is not limited to domestic deliveries, but the saying always applied - before and after the war: "My field is the world!" There is no continent that is not supplied with Gubener hats and exports goes not only to countries with little hat industry, but also to countries with the greatest technical ability and strongest competitiveness.

Of course, extraordinary difficulties had to be overcome after the war in order to get the lost exports going again and to gain new ground on the former foreign sales markets, especially since in individual competing countries the domestic industry there - similar to our hair hat industry - during the war technically very much improved and had become extraordinarily efficient. However, the tenacious efforts of the entrepreneurs succeeded in increasing exports to such an extent that in the years 1927/28 they reached 80 per cent in value of the total production. Unfortunately, the economic crisis brought about a change. The devaluation of many European currencies has exacerbated this over the past few years; After the North American market had been blocked some time earlier by the introduction of high protective tariffs for German imports, the devaluation of the pound sterling in particular made the hitherto considerable exports to the Nordic countries and to England itself almost impossible. The export share fell to half, that is to 15 per cent, of the total production, and figures can be used to show that the reduction in the number of employees which occurred during the crisis can be attributed exclusively to the drop in exports. In other words: throughout the crisis, the Gubener hat industry maintained its domestic sales in terms of employment. Certainly an achievement to be proud of and of which entrepreneurs and followers can be proud! Of the 48 hat factories in Germany in 1928, the crisis swept away 12, i.e. a quarter, so that in 1934 only 36 were still in existence. Only one of the twelve factories that were shut down was in Guben, so that at the time our town was often described as an economic oasis.

For various reasons, the National Socialist state's vigorous job-creation measures could not have a direct impact on the hat industry. They had to be aimed at the big picture, that is, cover those trades that could accommodate the largest possible number of workers, so that they could not be geared to the special conditions of such a narrow special industry. Then there was the fact that the hat is not part of a uniform, so that there was no animation from this side either. In addition, the hatless fashion that had existed for years continued to have a very detrimental effect on employment. So in the hat industry a certain improvement only became noticeable in the second half of 1934.

With around 6,500 employees, the hat industry is the largest provider of jobs for the commercial population of the town of Guben. If it were possible to increase exports more strongly again, a further large number of jobs could be filled; the number of employees in October 1927 was almost 7500!

The wool and hair hat industry is an industry that involves a great deal of labor, because it first produces a semi-finished product (so-called felt hoods) from the natural raw material (wool, noils, rabbit and hare hair) and then immediately afterwards produces the finished product from the semi-finished product, which as it leaves the factory, is used by the consumer. Men and women work in roughly equal proportions (46 to 54 percent). The decisive factor for the large number of female followers is the fact that on the one hand the material in the first steps requires more delicate processing by the lighter woman's hand and on the other hand the hat stitching and trimmings with their many sewing tasks are typical women's work.

On average, about 60% of the employees are pieceworkers.

If you estimate the sum of all wages and salaries that the Gubener hat industry pays per year, you still arrive at an amount of around 8 million Reichsmarks today (compared to a high of 12 to 13 million marks in 1927). If you take into account that the approximately 6,500 employees each support one relative from their earnings, then there are around 13,000 Guben residents who earn their livelihood directly from the hat industry.

From these figures it follows that the hat industry is the characteristic industry for Guben and that Guben is rightly called the "Hat City of Germany".

(This article was provided by Marting81.)

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  • habigman changed the title to Guben Protected / Well Hatted, Our Hat Industry, By Dr. Kersten, Gubener Zeitung June 1, 1935

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