Straw hats were Curaçao’s single most important export in the early 20th century. In fact, they’re the only rural product to achieve that status. International demand was predominantly driven by two distinct markets: 1. wealthy, fashionable American and European businessmen happy to pay a premium for expertly-crafted Panama hats and 2. poor male agricultural workers in Latin America in desperate need of protection from the sun. Panama hats and wide sombreros made up as much as 70% of Curaçao’s exports by 1905, reaching 80% in 1906, peaking at 1.6 million in 1912 (total value of 750,000 guilders or $425,000 at the time; $14 million now), far outnumbering our exports of dye wood, salt, aloe products, cochineal, oranges and cotton. Our hat industry employed as many as 5,700 hat makers, making up 17% of our total population of 33,000 by 1913 — the vast majority of them were rural black women.
Our hat making tradition dates back to the 18th century, but Venezuelan refugees may have helped us perfect our craft around the 1820s. Hat making was considered a crucial alternative form of employment during economic decline fueled by drought. Rural men would temporarily immigrate to find work elsewhere during those trying times (Cuba’s sugar plantations were a popular turn-of-century destination), while rural women would stay at home and weave hats for their men (Cuba was among the biggest customers of our sombreros).
Thousands of our delicate Panama hats were exported to grace the heads of elegant, fashion-forward New Yorkers, Parisians, Londoners. ‘Panama’ hat is a bit of a misnomer: Panama simply served as a trade hub for ‘Panama’ hats; hats were actually manufactured in Ecuador, Colombia, Guayaquil and Curaçao. New York even had an official ‘Panama hat day’ (April 15), marking the start of summer!
Perhaps most awesome of all: Curaçao’s hat making industry managed to successfully connect diverse racial groups and social classes throughout Bandariba (town) and Bandabou (country) for the very first time.
– Free (government-subsidized) courses in weaving techniques were taught by individual merchants and by the Roman Catholic Church. Haim Cohen Henriquez*, a resourceful Jewish merchant, taught his own courses on the ground level of his house in Pietermaai. Graduates, in turn, traveled to rural areas and schools to share their expertise with poor rural black women.
– Production was very much a cottage industry: women would join together and work out of their kas di pal’i maishi. A cooperative of female hat makers (Arbeid Adelt, “Work is Honorable”) was founded 1920 and continued until 1934.
– Newly immigrated Syrian and Lebanese tended to be middle-men distributors. They’d make the rounds in rural areas, deliver imported straw, collect finished hats, pay the women (a modest sum per piece), and bring specifications for new orders.
– These middlemen would buy new batches of imported straw in Punda, resell finished hats to exporters, take instructions from merchants for new orders (establishing themselves as key commercial intermediaries)
– The Punda merchants (often Jewish, with excellent international connections) imported the high quality straw needed to ensure first rate hats and organized the export of the finished hats to international markets. They’d share best practices with manufacturers in China, Italy and Jamaica; order dye tests from the Netherlands and new straw varieties from Colombia; and send samples of their product to Amsterdam, London, Paris and New York.
*Haim Cohen Henriquez was appointed government manager of Curaçao’s straw hat industry and traveled extensively to find new ways to improve the quality of our hats — so as to grow our share of the international market (main competitors were Ecuador and Colombia). He traveled to Maracaibo (Venezuela) in search of better straw; to Puerto Rico to learn more about tools and techniques; to Europe and the United States to understand market demand. He’d also visit remote rural areas of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire to oversee production and to instruct and better organize the workers.