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Chambray shirts and felt hats
Now and Then
roger branch

People from my parents’ generation and before correctly understood that the sun is no friend to humans of Western European origin. One painful sunburn was enough to drive home that truth for anyone “with one eye and half sense.” During outdoor activity, the whole body was protected with clothing and the head with hats or work bonnets.

Women and girls wore long-sleeved dresses or skirts and long-sleeved blouses along with their bonnets for work. Freckles were not stylish. Short sleeves for casual wear were acceptable as long as there was no extended exposure to the sun.

Men and boys wore long-sleeved shirts with overalls, jeans or twill trousers. The choice for winter might be flannel, but twill shirts had the advantage of all year wear being tight-woven tough and warm when new but wearing thin enough to be a bit cooler by the next summer. Chambray was a favorite fabric for many. It would work well enough with a suitable coat or jacket in winter and would wear down to almost see-through thinness by summer. Most had short sleeved shirts for casual wear.

Summer work demanded the protection of long sleeves. Work days were long and the sun was almost directly overhead. It was time to turn up collars and even then part of the neck might get burned red. Shirts also shielded from soil by dust and dirt.

For tobacco farmers, the worst soil was tar from tobacco plants. Leaves were handled many times on “picking” days depositing tar on everything they touched. During the growing season, each plant was “topped” and “suckered.” Tops were the flowers at the top of the plant which were broken out to concentrate the vitality of the plant in the leaves. Suckers were miniatures of the parent plant that grew at the base of every leaf. They would siphon off nutrition from the leaves and in time become so large as to interfere with harvest. So, tops and suckers had to be removed by hand. They were loaded with tar, which made hands and clothes sticky and dark.

Farmers wore tough trousers to stand up under the sort of work they did. Bib overalls were preferred by many. They liked the extra protection from belly to chin that the bib provided. They also liked the extra pockets in the bib; good for chewing tobacco or cigarettes or Prince Albert and papers for “roll your own” smokes. Jeans or the roomier denim dungarees were also popular, as were twill pants with dark colors often chosen over the familiar tan that showed soil readily. In time, my father came to prefer long-sleeved coveralls worn as the outer layer of garments during winter and with nothing but underwear in summer by which time they were thin enough to be tolerable.

Like their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, men wore hats. Only long past World War II were caps adopted, often as advertisement gifts from firms desiring their dollars. They wore felt hats, an occasional derby, but most were fedoras. All men wore them, as seen in old movies. They wore them everywhere outside but never in the house or church. To have come to the table wearing a cap, as some now do, would be to endure a scolding and miss a meal.

Styles changed over time. The brim was sometimes wider, then narrower and the crown might be taller at times. My paternal grandfather’s “old hat” — now almost 100 years old — has a wide brim and tall crown.

In summer, felt is a stiff, hot fabric, which absorbs sweat and holds fast the heat of the head. A flat, wide-brimmed straw hat was introduced primarily for casual wear. Sometimes called a “skimmer,” many of the old hands considered it to be too dandified.

Then came the “gopher shell” as a work hat option. Similar to the pith helmet seen in great white hunter movies set in Africa, it is less stylish, more round. It got its name from the land-dwelling, burrowing gopher tortoise. Once plentiful in sandhill areas of South Georgia, it is now endangered. When a “gopher” dies of natural causes, its round, hard shell remains for months, even years, if undisturbed. The common name for the hat came from its resemblance to the gopher shell. Straps on the inside hold the hat away from the head and small holes around the sides permit air flow. A narrow, sloping brim shades the eyes and neck. One critic noted that any breeze blowing through the air holes sounds like a wind storm.

Another summer option is a straw hat, often imitating in shape the cowboy hats in the movies. They are lighter but not immune to sweat absorption. Wind plays havoc with them, the reason why I preferred those with strings that fastened under the chin.

From my mother came an account of an ill-fated straw hat worn by a neighbor — call him Jack — a man of short temper and colorful language. It was tobacco setting time, probably late March. Family, neighbors and farm hands were assembled for the task of using hand transplanters and other hard labor to set tobacco plants in the field. It was a true March day, windy. That wind blew Jack’s straw hat off his head. He stopped his work, picked it up and replaced it on his head. Then came another gust that sent his hat rolling and bouncing across the field. 

This time he berated his hat with strong language, chased it down, stomped it thoroughly, jammed the mangled mass onto his head and went back to work.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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