Head Lines

August 2017

In an age more sanguine about the benefits of progress than our own, Scientific American enthusiastically reported on man’s inventive genius every week. On March 9,1878, its readers learned all about the Hat Conformator (Fig. 1, below), a bewilderingly complicated French tool used to measure men’s heads in order to block their hats properly.


Pay attention, now: When the Conformator was placed on the customer’s head, sixty spring-held ( B ), L-shaped ebony arms ( A ) would slide out to conform to the contours of the chosen head. Each arm ended at the top in a tiny steel point, over which was clamped a blank sheet of paper; the resulting pinpricks (Fig. 3) indicated the shape of the head. The hatter then scissored out the pattern and placed it on yet another gadget (Figs. 6 and 7), which had sixty blocking arms ( F ) that could be moved back and forth to conform to the shape of the pattern and locked into place with thumbscrews ( G ). Finally, the hat would be forced onto the mold, ready to be steamed and blocked for a perfect fit.

And there was a larger application: The device seemed likely to become an indispensable tool of the craniologist, for whose benefit the Conformator drawings of “Heads, Curious and Distinguished” (below) were appended. Number 5, for instance, was “a good example of the Anglo-Saxon type of head”; its pear-shaped neighbor, typically French; and Number 8 “an instance of a German head, possessing … considerable breadth.”


Whatever parallels the craniologist may have drawn between the distinguished heads and the brains they contained, the magazine remained cautious about the newscience: “Unfortunately, however, there is much disagreement as to how the[se] measurements should be regarded … so that while some important general laws will probably be based upon them, at present there is not much to be deduced.”