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An essay by A. G. Gardiner

On The Philosophy Of Hats

Title:     On The Philosophy Of Hats
Author: A. G. Gardiner [More Titles by Gardiner]

The other day I went into a hatter's to get my hat ironed. It had been ruffled by the weather, and I had a reason for wishing it to look as new and glossy as possible. And as I waited and watched the process of polishing, the hatter talked to me on the subject that really interested him--that is, the subject of hats and heads.

"Yes," said he, in reply to some remark I had made; "there's a wonderful difference in the shape of 'eads and the size. Now your 'ead is what you may call an ord'nary 'ead. I mean to say," he added, no doubt seeing a shadow of disappointment pass across my ordinary face, "I mean to say, it ain't what you would call extry-ord'nary. But there's some 'eads--well, look at that 'at there. It belongs to a gentleman with a wonderful funny-shaped 'ead, long and narrer and full of nobbles--'stror'nary 'ead 'e 'as. And as for sizes, it's wonderful what a difference there is. I do a lot of trade with lawyers, and it's astonishing the size of their 'eads. You'd be surprised. I suppose it's the amount of thinking they have to do that makes their 'eads swell. Now that 'at there belongs to Mr. ------ (mentioning the name of a famous lawyer), wonderful big 'ead 'e 'as--7-1/2--that's what 'e takes, and there's lots of 'em takes over 7.

"It seems to me," he went on, "that the size of the 'ead is according to the occupation. Now I used to be in a seaport town, and I used to serve a lot of ships' captains. 'Stror'nary the 'eads they have. I suppose it's the anxiety and worry they get, thinking about the tides and the winds and the icebergs and things...."

I went out of the shop with my ord'nary 'ead, conscious of the fact that I had made a poor impression on the hatter. To him I was only a 6-7/8 size, and consequently a person of no consequence. I should have liked to point out to him that it is not always the big heads that have the jewel in them. Of course, it is true that great men often have big heads. Bismarck's size was 7-1/4, so was Gladstone's, so was Campbell-Bannerman's. But on the other hand, Byron had a small head, and a very small brain. And didn't Goethe say that Byron was the finest brain that Europe had produced since Shakespeare? I should not agree in ordinary circumstances, but as a person with a smallish head, I am prepared in this connection to take Goethe's word on the subject. As Holmes points out, it is not the size of the brain but its convolutions that are important (I think, by the way, that Holmes had a small head). Now I should have liked to tell the hatter that though my head was small I had strong reason to believe that the convolutions of my brain were quite top-hole.

I did not do so and I only recall the incident now because it shows how we all get in the way of looking at life through our own particular peep-hole. Here is a man who sees all the world through the size of its hats. He reverences Jones because he takes 7-1/2; he dismisses Smith as of no account because he only takes 6-3/4. In some degree, we all have this restricted professional vision. The tailor runs his eye over your clothes and reckons you up according to the cut of your garments and the degree of shininess they display. You are to him simply a clothes-peg and your merit is in exact ratio to the clothes you carry. The bootmaker looks at your boots and takes your intellectual, social and financial measurement from their quality and condition. If you are down-at-the-heel, the glossy condition of your hat will not alter his opinion about you. The hat does not come in his range of vision. It is not a part of his criteria.

It is so with the dentist. He judges all the world by its teeth. One look in your mouth and he has settled and immovable convictions about your character, your habits, your physical condition, your position, and your mental attributes. He touches a nerve and you wince. "Ah," says he to himself, "this man takes too much alcohol and tobacco and tea and coffee." He sees the teeth are irregular. "Poor fellow," he says, "how badly he was brought up!" He observes that the teeth are neglected. "A careless fellow," he says. "Spends his money on follies and neglects his family I'll be bound." And by the time he has finished with you he feels that he could write your biography simply from the evidence of your teeth. And I daresay it would be as true as most biographies--and as false.

In the same way, the business man looks at life through the keyhole of his counting-house. The world to him is an "emporium," and he judges his neighbour by the size of his plate glass. And so with the financier. When one of the Rothschilds heard that a friend of his who had died had left only a million of money he remarked: "Dear me, dear me! I thought he was quite well off." His life had been a failure, because he had only put a million by for a rainy day. Thackeray expresses the idea perfectly in Vanity Fair:--

"You see," said old Osborne to George, "what comes of merit and industry and judicious speculations and that. Look at me and my banker's account. Look at your poor grandfather Sedley and his failure. And yet he was a better man than I was, this day twenty years--a better man I should say by twenty thousand pounds."

I fancy I, too, have my professional way of looking at things, and am disposed to judge men, not by what they do but by the skill they have in the use of words. And I know that when an artist comes into my house he "sizes me up" from the pictures on the wall, just as when the upholsterer comes he "places" me according to the style of the chairs and the quality of the carpet, or as when the gourmet comes he judges by the cooking and the wine. If you give him champagne he reverences you; if hock he puts you among the commonplace.

In short, we all go through life wearing spectacles coloured by our own tastes, our own calling, and our own prejudices, measuring our neighbours by our own tape-measure, summing them up according to our own private arithmetic. We see subjectively, not objectively; what we are capable of seeing, not what there is to be seen. It is not wonderful that we make so many bad guesses at that prismatic thing, the truth.

[The end]
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On The Philosophy Of Hats