Consul Welsh reports to the United States Government as follows : - In the city of Florence is a market for straw goods made by hand by female residents of surrounding places, such as Fiesole, Brozzi, Signa, Prato, etc. Most of the straw merchants are established at Florence, but workshops are not to be found in the city, with the exception of those for preparing, casing, and baling goods to be shipped. Ancona and Carpi are likewise places of production, but their products are under the control of Florentine merchants.
The price of straw hats and braids depends much upon the fashion and the season of the year, winter being the marketing season; also, upon the number of straw threads used in making up, and if they are bleached or unbleached, coloured or not, etc.
Straw goods are all invoiced at the actual market value, they being all on consignment for sale. It is to be understood, however, that there is not a proper market in which prices for the various kinds of braids on hats are quoted, and consequently not even the local Royal Chamber of Commerce, which superintends the trade of this province, can keep any record whatever of the straw trade. The prices are subject principally to the quotations of the New York market and the importance of orders received.
It is utterly impossible to give the exact market value at which straw hats and braids are invoiced, owing to the fluctuation of prices and the difference of quotations among the various places. Moreover, the nomenclature of goods varies so much that every week merchants bring in a new name for braids and hats, which may differ but very slightly from the kinds made for years.
Goods are generally ordered by cable or letter merely by a number, each number indicating the style of straw or hat wished for - each number having a corresponding one in the sample book of the merchant. Straw braids are made in pieces and measure sometimes 45-48 meters, and in other instances 48-52 yd.
Straw braids and common or unfinished hats are baled, and the bales cost about the sum of 6s. Straw hats, finished, are put in cases containing several hundred dozens, the cases costing from 8-9s. each. Fashionable hats for ladies are carefully packed in boxes, which cost 2-35.
Prior to the packing of braids and hats, they are carefully selected and folded, for which operation merchants usually charge 1/10 d. per each piece of braid, or 1/2 d. per dozen of hats.
Although the manufacture of straw hats was introduced into England by James I., and took root at that time in Bedfordshire, the large size of the wheat straw used for plaiting prevented the home manufacture from entering into successful competition with the finer productions of Italy.
The founders of the Society of Arts endeavoured, by the offer of rewards, to stimulate and improve the British material. The difficulty caused by the size of the straw was partly overcome by splitting it, and in 1774, a reward of 30 guineas was given to John Pepperell, for having established a manufactory of chip hats at Totnes. In 1775, 5 guineas were awarded to Robert Galloway, for the invention of tools for cutting chip hats. Ten guineas additional were given to Pepperell for the chip hats made at his manufactory at Totnes.
In 1804, the Society's gold medal was voted to William Corston for a substitution of a plait from rye straw, which he had introduced in place of Leghorn plait. Six years afterwards, Corston wrote to the Society an account of his experiments in growing the grass on Bagshot Heath and on some barren land in Norfolk, in which paper he claimed that his manufacture had then obtained an established success.
A strong interest was still felt in the improvement of the home production, as it was found that, after the re-establishment of peace in 1815, the British producers were unable to compete with the Italian straw bonnets, which were largely imported, in spite of the heavy protecting duty imposed upon them by the Government. J. Parry received the Society's silver medal for the manufacture of Leghorn plait from straw imported from Italy; and in the same year, Sophia Woodhouse, a farmer's daughter, of Weathersfield, in Connecticut (afterwards Mrs. Wells), sent to the Society an imitation Leghorn bonnet of her own manufacture, from the stems of a species of grass growing spontaneously in that part of the United States, and popularly known by the name of "Ticklemoth." This communication met with great approval, and some of the principal dealers in such articles, after inspecting the bonnet, declared that it was superior even to Leghorn in the fineness of the material and beauty of its colour. In accordance with this expression of opinion, the large silver medal and 20 guineas were awarded to Mrs. Wells. William Cobbett was much struck with the importance of this subject, and printed an account of it in his Register. An importer of Italian straw then applied to Cobbett to know whether he could get any of the American straw imported.
The result was that Cobbett set to work in his usual energetic manner to see if English grasses might not be used for the same purpose, and he thus opened up a fresh industry for large numbers of the unemployed, and received a large silver medal from the Society. (Jour. Soc. Arts.)
The manufacture of straw goods in the United States commenced in 1804, at Wrentham, Mass. The output from the New England shops is now set down at 14,000,000 hats, and from factories west of New England nearly as much more, making in all from 25,000,000 to 30,000,000 hats as the annual production of the country.
is a rule, straw goods should be well steeped, and then treated with alum, orchil, and indigo extract, and yellowed with turmeric. The shades most in demand are black, brown, and grey-Black (for 25 hats) : Logwood, 4 lb. 6 oz.; bruised galls, 17 1/4 oz.; turmeric or fustic, 4 1/4 oz. Boil for 2 hours, and then steep in a beck of black liquor (crude iron acetate) at 4° or 5° B.; rinse in several waters, dry, and rub with a brush of dogs' grass, to bring up the polish.