Daniel Rubin: The art of making hats out of newspapers

Bill Daley demonstrates the art of making a hat from newspaper in his Elkins Park pottery studio.
Bill Daley demonstrates the art of making a hat from newspaper in his Elkins Park pottery studio.
Posted: October 04, 2010

My neighbor came running after me the other day, complaining about the newspaper.

Ordinarily I'd quicken my step, but this neighbor was Bill Daley, the potter, and the octogenarian mudman was wearing a smart little hat he'd crafted out of a recent daily.

His beef was about our coverage, but not the sort you probably think.

"Ever since you shrank the width of the paper," he carped, "I've had trouble making my hats."

Daley knows how to make 21 kinds of hats out of a newspaper - variations on the boxy pressman's hat that bring to mind a pope, a Shogun, a soda jerk, a cat, a Korean fireman.

But changes in the economy of newspapers have forced Daley to alter a process of folding and pinching and creasing that he's practiced for more than a half-century.

Over the last decade, the rising cost of newsprint has led The Inquirer to narrow the paper rolling on the presses from 54 inches to 48 inches. That's the width of four side-by-side sheets.

The result is that Daley can no longer tuck the end flaps under the narrow cuffs he makes at the bottom of each cap. So now he uses a glue gun or duct tape to finish the job, and that strikes him as inelegant.

This gave me an idea. Our new owners, a collection of banks and hedge funds, are supposed to take official possession of the papers this week, and they've talked a lot about the need to jump boldly into the digital future. I thought they might like a video of my 85-year-old friend demonstrating the ancient newspaper craft. With luck you should be able to find the video on Philly.com today.

I've been a fan of these classic caps since the first time I visited the Inquirer Building cafeteria, back in 1982, and came upon a table of pressmen hunched over their dinners, sporting ink- and dirt-speckled paper toppers.

You can still spot the rare pressman's hat at the paper, but to do so you'd have to drive out to the printing plant, now in Conshohocken, where baseball caps have become more common.

Newspaper hats have always meant romance to Daley. He made his first one when he was courting his wife of 60 years.

Catherine Stennes was a senior at the Massachusetts School of Art when she brought her classmate home to Dorchester to meet her father, a Norwegian immigrant who worked in printing.

Mr. Stennes had to show Daley the folding routine twice before he caught on.

"I think he thought I was a dim wick," Daley says.

Daley came to Philadelphia in 1957 to teach at the Philadelphia College of Art - now the University of the Arts - and ever since he has warmed up students in lectures around the world with demonstrations of making the newspaper hat, which he wears to protect his pate from dust and clay.

It takes him about nine minutes to turn out a proper hat in his Elkins Park basement-studio, a bright, busy but orderly place with a sweet, earthy smell. A giant pot - representing about 200 hours of work - sits on a workbench, awaiting one more day of labor before he will ship it to Chicago, where it and four others are appearing at a show.

His pots have been collected by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Smithsonian of American Art in Washington, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but in more than 20 years of my knowing him, he's never mentioned this to me.

He's a tall, solidly built man with blue eyes, thick, pinkish hands, and an accent still flavored by the Hudson Valley of his boyhood.

He talks as he works, and his lesson in hat-making roams from Goya, the Druids, and World War II to the difference between art and craft, the history of basket-making, and a good bit of mystical philosophy.

"It's revelatory," he says, finishing his noggin-protector from the day's news. "You have a flat plane and you turn it into a volume."

What you do next is critical, he says. Not anyone can wear a hat right. He demonstrates by placing his creation high on his head. "It means you're a dork," he says. Then he tugs it down sharply. Too angry or unbalanced.

He finds the good compromise, cocked slightly, and resting about a finger's width above his right eyebrow.

Bill Daley, mudman, professor emeritus, and maker of sporty ephemera, snaps his fingers, coolly. "It means you're dangerous," he says.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubi@phillynews.com.

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