Tip of the hat to wisdom learned at Smithbilt

David Eisenstadt, Calgary Herald
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
I couldn’t help but marvel at the staying power of the iconic white cowboy hat sported by Oprah Winfrey during her recent visit to Calgary. Her seal of approval was another credit to Smithbilt Hats.
Her blessing was true (read positive) validation of Calgary’s proud western heritage.
Curiously, though, it also reminded me of the travails of my first real job at Smithbilt, many years ago.
And it got me thinking … when your son or daughter says, “I’d like to get a part-time, after-school job and earn my own money,” what does a parent say?
Well, my folks, Max and Bessie Eisenstadt, thought that was a reasonable request for a 14-year-old, and while my first part-time job was working Saturdays in my dad’s grocery store, the NU-WAY at 1717 17th Ave. S.W., I wanted to look for a job on my own and see what it was like to work for non-family.
But my dad pre-empted my search and called Smithbilt president Judah Shumiatcher, and next thing I knew, I reported for duty at the Calgary institution on 12th Avenue S.W., not far from where we lived. The year was 1958.
I was no stranger to working, having also shined shoes on Saturdays with my cousin Harvey at the venerable Calgary Shoe Hospital on 8th Avenue, founded by my godfather, Uncle Joe Shapiro. That was a fun gig.
But Smithbilt was different. While not a sweatshop, by definition, one certainly worked up a sweat.
I arrived on a Monday after school and met the foreman, a nice, but crusty sort of guy, whose name I forget. He showed me around and I was assigned to the kids’ hat area.
Besides the iconic white hat (and lots of other styles), Smithbilt had the children’s cowboy hat market sewn up (pardon the pun).
My job was to block those kids’ hats; the ones marketed in a rainbow of colours, with rope around the brim and the little ball that you pulled to keep the hat tightly on your head.
I was being paid by the piece, and my shift was from 4 to 7 p.m.
After getting the “cook’s tour” of the plant, I was shown my work area. What I stepped in to was a sea of raw felt hats stacked 25 high, by colour – purple, red, white, green and so on. Next to the felt hats was a rack of wooden blocks, each meant to fit into the crown of the hat.
First decision: pick a size block (6½, 63/4, 7, 7¼, 7½, for example). I would take each hat, invert it into a cauldron-like blocking machine, fit the felt in the centre, insert the block, pull down a very heavy lever and depress a pedal at the base of the machine simultaneously, which released steam to complete the blocking process. I recall that I was to hold the lever in place for about one minute, then, withdraw the warm, blocked hat without ripping the brim from the teeth of the machine, and restack for the person down the line punching the holes for the rope and ball.
And then I’d do it all over again.
Did I mention I was paid 25 cents a dozen?
I took my first break after an hour, and then got back at it. By this time, I had really mastered the process and did not ruin any of the hats.
At the end of the second hour, the crusty foreman came by and whispered, “Kid, you’re working too fast.” I stopped and asked him what he meant. He said, “You heard me, slow down, you are going to embarrass us.”

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