One of the last original frame structures in Petrolia’s downtown was Kate Newton’s Hat Shop. Many will remember this landmark as a small frame-building, which by the 1970s had acquired a decided lean. It stood between the Masonic building
and the Vaughn Block (Modern Ladies Wear). The building was razed in 1974 and was never replaced. Its former location now serves as a parking lot.
Prior to the second half of the 20th century women’s hats were more than just a fashion
accessory, they were nearly a social necessity as society dictated that proper ladies should not be seen in public without headwear.
Consequently, nearly every town and community in Ontario had a millinery or hat shop. The trade of milliner was almost
exclusively a woman’s occupation and a skilled milliner not only created hats and bonnets, but also chose the laces, trims and accessories to complete an ensemble.
Headwear for women began in earnest during the Middle Ages when the church decreed
that a lady’s hair must be covered. That tradition was observed for centuries; however, with the changing social norms of the 1960s, headwear for women became an accessory of the past. Consequently, when The Newton’s Hat Shop closed in the late
1960s it was probably among the last of its kind in the province.
Kate Newton first entered the millinery business in Petrolia in 1908 when she purchased the fledgling business of Laura Sharkey, (The Sharkey Family were long-time hoteliers in town)
who at that time operated out of a store on the North side of Petrolia Line near the Odd Fellow’s Hall. However, in later years Miss Newton moved the business across the street to her long-held location next to the Masonic building. It should be noted
that she not only created and decorated her own designs, but also ordered in the latest styles from the world’s fashion hot spots such as New York, Paris, Montreal and Vancouver.
Over the years, she also ran a Millinery business in Sarnia in two
different locations: she first had a store on Front Street and later one on Cromwell Street. However, in 1946 she closed the Cromwell Street store and consolidated her efforts on her popular Petrolia location.
Katherine Newton was born in Petrolia in
1883, the daughter of Joel and Annie Newton, her father being one of the town’s early oil drillers. Her father also spent more than 30 years drilling in the foreign fields and died while on a drilling project in Australia.
Consequently, the responsibility
of raising Kate and her siblings fell mostly on their mother, Annie Newton, who was remembered as a kindly and well respected lady who took an active part in the affairs of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Kate never married and lived with her
mother and siblings in a large home on Warren Avenue at the entrance to Crescent Park. Her siblings included a sister, Ethel, and two brothers, Dan and Roy, who together ran the Iroquois Hotel for many years.
After Kate Newtown’s death in 1968,
her home and its contents went on the auction block. In the attic were more than 500 hats left over from her former millinery stores, most of which were from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Many were Parisian imports with the original prices tags still on
Their historical significance was not recognized by most at the time, but the late George Smith, a well-known local historian from Sarnia purchased the entire lot. Smith had a reputation for buying up old photos and historic items that would have
otherwise been relegated to the trash bin. In fact, much of the archival material that now exists in the Lambton County Archives can be attributed to Smith’s obsession for buying up local artifacts when no one else was interested.
In the 1990s,
that entire collection of hats was acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec and became the center-piece of an extensive exhibit titled “Hold Onto Your Hats.” The Kate Newton story also became the central focus of a thesis
written by curator Tina Bates which examines the cultural history of hats and the millinery trade in Ontario. Bates noted that the inventory of the Newton Hat Shop was not parochial by any means and featured the highest quality of imported fashions.
Newton was remembered as a quiet, caring, women who, like her mother before her, was an active member of the Crescent Circle of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. She died May 25, 1968 at the age of 85 following a lengthy illness. She is interred
in the family plot at Hillsdale Cemetery.