Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Christmas Hat: The Story of Augusta Brown and Her Talking Victrola

Once there was a milliner named Augusta Brown who lived in a Victorian mansion in Philadelphia. In the front of her elegant home was a hat shop for all the beautiful ladies’ hats that she made. 

“What would I do with myself without my hats?” she asked herself every morning.

From the street, passersby admired her seasonal window displays with hats of every kind. At Christmas, she made an especially stunning display with hats on a well-lit Christmas tree. On the top of the tree, she would hang her annual red and white Christmas hat.

“Every Mrs. Claus in town would surely like to wear an Augusta Brown hat!” her advertisements said. 

She was known for her pillbox, cloche, peach basket, fascinator—feathers fixed to a comb, and large-brimmed hats. Customers could place orders for any fashion hat imaginable with a matching parasol, gloves, and a scarf.

Augusta had started “Augusta Brown Hats” with Ike, her husband, who died from a stroke two years ago. As a way to build the business, Ike insisted that she hold ladies card club meetings once a week. 

“I’ll hide in the back of the house!” he said, laughing. “You and the ladies would never want a man around.”

The ladies of Philadelphia loved to play cards, eat desserts, and buy Augusta’s hats! Ike even bought a Victrola from the Victor Talking Machine Company to play music for the card club.

“Just don’t turn the music up too loud!” he would say. “I’ll be napping when the ladies come over.” 

When no one but Augusta and Ike were in the shop, the couple would dance to the latest popular songs. Ike would put on “A Little Bit of Heaven” and “Smile and the World Smiles With You” almost every night.

Now the Victrola sat in the corner, and Augusta hardly ever used it—only once or twice since Ike died. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was their favorite holiday song, which they danced to each Christmas Eve.

These days, Augusta spent most Christmas holidays alone, re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Lately, she felt like closing the shop and trying something new, but she kept it open for something to do. She still held ladies card club, but mostly to feature her weekly hat special, more than anything else. 

“Two for the price of one,” Augusta said, advertising her yearly Christmas sale in the window. “If business doesn’t pick up by spring, I’m closing the hat shop and moving to Boston,” she told the card club. 

“Boston? What’s in Boston?” one of the ladies’ card club members said. “Nothing but snow, ice, and cold . . .”

“There will be no memories of Ike, and I can start a dress company instead of a hat shop,” Augusta said. 

“It’s not really business that needs to pick up. Romance in your life needs to pick up!” a card-playing lady said. “You’re busier than ever with your hats! What you need is to find yourself a good gentleman, like Ike.”

Augusta folded her hand of cards and poured herself a hot cup of tea with lemon and sugar. She nibbled on tea sandwiches and scones with Devonshire cream until the card game was finished. Despite the opinions of the ladies’ card club, Augusta thought she would certainly soon be on a train to Boston.

The next afternoon, a man walked into the shop with a black, broad-brimmed gambler hat covered in snow. As he opened the shop door, the Victrola started playing: “That glorious song of old . . . from angels bending near the earth . . . to touch their harps of gold . . . peace on the earth, goodwill to men . . .”

When Augusta heard the music, she knocked over her spools of thread, and string went flying every which way.

“Mrs. Brown, let me help you with that,” the handsome gentleman said, picking up the pieces of thread.

“Oh, it’s just that I haven’t played the Victrola in years,” she said. “I must have bumped it or something . . . and it turned on by itself. I can’t imagine how it would do that . . . I didn’t even crank the handle.”

“Well, maybe your husband wound it up, and you didn’t know it,” the stranger said, smiling at her.

“It’s just a fluke, that’s all,” Augusta said. “My husband has passed away. I run the shop by myself.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the gentleman said, still trying to gather the spools of thread and stacking them in rows. “My name is Andrew Knight,” he continued. “I live with my sister and her husband near Franklin Square.”

“Oh, I see . . . Now before the afternoon gets away from us, how can I help you Mr. Knight?” Augusta asked. 

“I’d like a red pillbox hat for Lynn, my sister,” Andrew said. “It’s a Christmas gift, and I need something special.”

“I was sure you were going to say that you wanted a hat for your wife,” Augusta said, writing the order.

“No, I’ve never been married,” Andrew said, adjusting his gambler hat. “I’ve never found the right woman.”

“That’s none of my business, is it?” Augusta said, kindly with hope. “Your red pillbox hat will be ready on Friday.”

Augusta spent the next few days sewing Andrew’s red pillbox hat—a bright, fitted hat with a bow on the side. When Friday came, Augusta made sure the Victrola was covered and put away in the corner. 

“It’s the Friday before Christmas! No funny business!” she said to the machine, tying ribbon on Andrew’s hatbox. 

As Andrew opened the shop door that afternoon, the Victrola began playing right where it left off. “From heaven’s all gracious King! The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing . . .”

“So, you must have cranked the Victrola this morning?” Andrew said, staring at Augusta in an awkward moment.

“No, I’ve been too busy with my Christmas orders to bother with that old Victrola,” Augusta said. “Now, here is the hat for your sister. If she needs any minor adjustments after she tries it on, please let me know.”

Andrew took the hatbox and held it at his chest. He wandered around the shop, admiring Augusta’s store. Then he finally turned to her and said, “Would you like to go to Christmas Eve dinner with me and my family?”

“Oh, why . . . um . . . well . . . yes, thank you. I don’t have any immediate plans. I’m probably moving to Boston, and I’ve almost bought my train ticket . . . and plan to start a dress company . . . but yes, thank you.”

“Good, I’ll see you at half-past five on Christmas Eve,” Andrew said. “Be sure to wear a fancy fascinator!”

When Andrew arrived at Augusta’s door on Christmas Eve, the Victrola began playing again. “Never in my life have I ever been so haunted!” Augusta said, rushing toward the Victrola to turn it off. 

“Augusta, would you like to dance with me?” Andrew asked, taking her hand, and twirling her in a circle. 

“Well . . . I suppose so,” Augusta said, reluctantly resting her head on his shoulder through all five verses of the carol. 

Although she put up a fuss for months, Augusta never bought a train ticket to Boston to start a dress company. She stayed in Philadelphia with her hats, spending each Christmas with Andrew as her husband.

The couple danced to the Victrola for the rest of their lives, grateful for the midnight hour when love itself became clear. 


Copyright 2015 Jennifer Waters

Dedicated to my great-great aunt, Augusta Brown, a milliner who held ladies card club with her Victor Talking Machine Company Victrola. Ike Brown was her husband.

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