In 1950s Annapolis, one would not be caught dead walking down Main Street without a hat. It was a key piece of the ensemble. Luckily, there was Mrs. Musterman’s shop.
Opened in 1921 at 197 Main St., L.P. Musterman Hat Shop sold the finest in hat couture, outfitting legislators, Naval Academy personnel and local leaders.
More than 100 years later, Lillian Powell Musterman’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Leah Reed, stood before a small crowd Wednesday in the final days of Women’s History Month, telling the story of her grandmother’s legacy at Eastport-Annapolis Neck Community Library, just over the bridge from where the storied shop stood. After publishing a biography of her grandmother in 2021 entitled “Mrs. Musterman, Milliner of Main Street: A Biography,” Reed was invited by the library to teach residents about her grandmother’s impact on the city.
When the shop first opened the cloche hat was all the rage. The bell-shaped hat would sit low on the forehead, shaping the face complete with pencil-thin eyebrows and dark lipstick. Gone were the days of the Gainsborough hat, an elaborate wide-brimmed accessory sometimes adorned with whole stuffed birds. Sleekness and minimalism were in and Musterman always had what was in vogue.
“It was a business for women. History says women didn’t work but we all know they did. Women always worked. They were dressmakers. They were tavern owners,” Reed said. Millinery, the trade of making and selling women’s hats, “was a big industry, a huge industry.”
Musterman, who came of age in a period when career options were limited for women, always wanted to be a milliner. She got her big break when she was approached by Julia Strange, then wife of Annapolis Mayor James Strange, to move from Baltimore to Annapolis and make hats. After working for Strange’s store at 205 Main St. for a little while she met and married John Henry Musterman. In 1916, her husband began to suffer from mental illness and stopped working, leaving her the sole breadwinner for her husband and three kids.
When Strange died three years later Musterman decided to start her own hat shop on Main Street and move her family to the apartment above the store.
“This is her dream, to have a store,” Reed said.
Through the Great Depression and World War II, Reed’s store continued to be profitable. She navigated hat trends with ease, selling the most ornate of fascinators, small hats that must be fastened to the head and achieved popularity in the 1940s as the cloche started to fade from public attention. Musterman even continued her business after the building caught fire in 1957.
“Milliners are tough,” Reed said.
Though Musterman ensured all the other women in Annapolis were as fashionable as could be, she, herself, clung to some older trends like wearing corsets.
“She was selling the most recent hats all during the flapper age. Flappers ... were tossing the corsets,” Reed said. “Not her.”
Some trends, however, were better left in the past, such as using iron tools to shape the women’s hats, which sometimes resulted in milliners contracting lead poisoning. Curing men’s beaver pelt hats with mercury, which led to mercury intoxication, also known as mad hatter’s disease, was also abandoned.
“This is her life: hats, hats, hats, hats. Everybody wore hats. Boys wore hats, girls wore hats, men wore hats, women wore hats,” Reed said. “You did not go out of the front door without a hat on.”
Hats weren’t only popular in Annapolis in the 1900s but in the 1800s and 1700s as well, said Reed. The more modern history of hats piqued the interest of Diane Rey, a re-enactor for Historic Annapolis who was in the audience for Reed’s talk. Rey portrays Anne Catharine Green, one of the first female newspaper printers in U.S. history who helped save The Maryland Gazette when her husband, publisher Jonas Green, died. When she reenacts Green, she dresses exactly as historians believed her to dress.
“I always wear a hat for the occasion,” Rey said.
The building out of which Musterman sold hats had a long legacy as a female-owned business, Rey said. In colonial times it was Mary Howard’s Maryland Coffeehouse, Rey said. George Washington was even rumored to have stopped by.
“All the important business in the town took place in that shop,” Rey said.
Rey was at Historic Annapolis’ Hogshead building during Maryland Day celebrations over the weekend reenacting Green.
“A lot of these stories are just little known and taken together they create the fabric of our community,” Rey said. “We can’t just talk about some stories. We read the same stories of the same well-known people all the time and it just doesn’t give us the full picture.”
The hat industry started to decline during the 1960s when big, bold hairstyles came on the scene, making it difficult to wear a hat. Musterman held on until she simply couldn’t turn a profit any longer.
However, fashion is cyclical and flattering, eye-catching items always come back in style. Around the time Musterman passed away at the age of 98, another hat shop emerged on Main Street, Hats in the Belfry, in 1978. It still stands today selling modern hats and ornate relics from a bygone era.
The Morning Sun
While Hats in the Belfry used to sell novelty hats like crowns and beanies with propellers, they now sell mostly high-quality items made in North America or Europe, said Severna Park resident Skip Briggs, who has owned Hats in the Belfry with his wife Gina Briggs since 2004.
Briggs suspects the more formal hats continue to sell in Annapolis due the large number of outdoor activities in the city, the city’s proximity to water and a loyal customer base.
“We’re coming up on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown of horse racing. That’s a major thrust for us,” Briggs said, adding they also sell lots of hats for the annual St. John’s versus U.S. Naval Academy Annapolis Cup Croquet Match, which takes place this year on April 15.
Hats in everyday life have returned to a more utilitarian purpose, Briggs said. The store often sells brimmed sun hats in the summer and fur-lined hats in the winter. While Hats in the Belfry had to close its two other locations in Philadelphia and Baltimore in the past few years, the Annapolis location endures.
Perhaps people come to such a historic place like Annapolis to step back in time for a little while and learn about the past through museums, art and objects like hats and other antiques, Reed added.
Reed’s book, which took her about seven years to write, has sold around 500 copies so far. It was worth the time, she said, to highlight a truly transformative woman in local history.
“We know history, but let’s do her-story,” Reed said.