Meyer the Hatter: A tip of the cap to a New Orleans original
In 1894, Sam H. Meyer left H.D. McGowan Clothing Store to open his own shop in the first block of St. Charles Avenue. It was a time when men’s hats — top hats, trilbys, bowlers, straw boaters, Homburgs, fedoras, caps — were an essential part of a man’s wardrobe. The store has weathered innumerable storms, and not just those of the meteorological kind. It survived the Depression, when “people weren’t buying as many hats, because they had to eat,” and World War II, when “men were away fighting in the war,” says Sam Meyer II, the grandson of Sam H. Meyer. It has also overcome the fickleness of fashion, starting with the rumor that President John F. Kennedy was responsible for the decline of the hat industry for not wearing a hat during his inauguration. (Not true; he wore a silk topper.) Through it all, though, Meyer the Hatter has had New Orleanians covered — and in style.
Three generations of the Meyer family currently work at the store, which offers men’s and women’s hat styles: Sam Meyer II and wife Marcelle Meyer, son Michael Meyer, son Paul Meyer and wife Pascale Meyer, and grandsons Chris Meyer and Cedric Meyer. Sam Meyer II, age 93, is at the store three times a week, and if he is not there, “he calls three times a day,” Chris Meyer says.
- The store was originally called Meyer’s Hatbox.
- Meyer the Hatter is the oldest family-owned hat store in the United States. The Detroit-area store Henry the Hatter is older, having been founded in 1893, but it has changed hands over the years.
- Meyer the Hatter proclaims itself to be “The South’s Largest Hat Store.” Chris Meyer says there are probably 20,000 hats in stock.
- Even though the store has had three locations, they have all been on the same block of St. Charles Avenue. The store has been at its current location since 1962.
- Meyer the Hatter is one of the oldest clients of the John B. Stetson Co., the manufacturer of Stetson hats, with their relationship starting around the year the store was founded. The relationship was founded upon a handshake between Sam H. Meyer and the Stetson company sales rep.
- According to an 1894 City Directory, there were 18 hat stores and 52 milliners operating in New Orleans at the time. In 2017, a casual look through online listings comes up with five hat stores and five milliners (though some, like Meyer the Hatter and Goorin Bros., fall into both categories).
- The store uses size tags on the outside of hats so sales staff can tell what size a hat is without turning it over.
- Sam Meyer II designed or redesigned a number of styles in the store into straw hats, including the Homburg, the Gulfport and St. Charles styles.
- The store has long been a traditional stop for celebrities in town. Among the famous names who have dropped by: James Taylor, Matthew McConaughey, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Kevin Spacey, Zac Efron, Laurence Fishburne, Susan Sarandon, Jimmy Buffett, Tim Reid, Hugh Laurie, Elvis Costello, Nick Nolte, Deion Sanders, Ricky Jackson, Steve Gleason, Regis Philbin, Johnny Knoxville, Reggie Jackson, and New Orleanians such as Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Kermit Ruffins, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Little Freddie King, Harry Lee, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino and Bryan Batt.
- The Backstreet Boys showed up during the height of their fame around 1996. According to lore, Sam Meyer II was in on a Sunday doing some work, though the store was closed, and he heard a knock on the door. Looking out the front window, he saw a group of men who wanted to come in. He let them in to shop, but it wasn’t until later that someone told him it was the Backstreet Boys. He still didn’t know who they were.
- Many local second-line groups have purchased hats from Meyer the Hatter, including Big Nine, Buckjumpers, CTC Steppers, Dumaine Street Gang, Family Ties, Men of Class, Perfect Gentlemen, Pigeon Town Steppers, Sudan, Treme Sidewalk Steppers, Uptown Swingers, and Young Men Olympians. Meyer the Hatter has also outfitted Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club characters’ entourages.
- Sam Meyer II’s favorite hat? A Dobbs Coronado pork pie hat.
With changing times come changing fashions. Consequently, countless other hat stores have come and gone around the country since 1894. But Meyer the Hatter endures — which is no small thing in a city in which local institutions seem to be disappearing at an ever-accelerating rate. As the operators of the oldest hat store continuously owned in the United States, Sam Meyer II and his family bring an institutional knowledge and flair to the business of buying a hat, which brings New Orleanians and out-of-towners back time after time. That’s something worth tipping one’s hat to. And if you don’t have a hat to tip, there’s this place on St. Charles Avenue …