IDENTIFIED MILITIA OFFICER’S CHAPEAU-DE-BRAS WITH ORIGINAL BOX BY JOHN MAYELL, ALBANY, Ca 1835-1840

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Item Code: 2020-108

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The bicorn, cocked hat, had come into military fashion shortly before 1800. Through the 1820s it tended to be of short or medium height, but sprouted considerably taller in the U.S. Army regulations of 1832 for general staff officers, which specified a front brim of nine inches and a rear brim of eleven. It remained regulation until 1851, when it was restricted to generals, and then changed considerably in 1858. Militia officers, of course, were not so narrowly constrained and may have been trend-setters in the style.

This very nice example generally follows the U.S. regulation pattern with black ribbons on the sides and a large black silk cockade. This is ornamented with whorls consisting of four strands of gold braid, along with gold braid buttons, lyres, and a diamond-shaped lozenge at bottom. It is rather close to the chapeau of Alexander Macomb, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army, 1828-1841, illustrated as Figure 6 in Howell and Kloster, but uses the die-struck silvered brass Napoleonic-style eagle, with raised but not spread wings and a wreath draped around its neck, that came into use for U.S. dragoons in 1833. It also carries gold bullion tassels, just visible at either side.

The black beaver body of the hat is excellent. The interior has a tall sweatband and black silk lining embossed with feathers and a gilt embossed maker’s name and address at center reading, “John Mayell 377 South Market St. Albany,” along with a dynamic American eagle with U.S. shield and “E Pluribus Unum” ribbon. The same maker’s name and address is printed on the original form-fitting cardboard box still with the hat. Mayell was a member of a prominent hat-making family in Albany, founded by William Mayell, who emigrated from England in 1795 and was advertising in Albany by 1797. John Mayell was in business from at least 1827, when he took on an apprentice, until 1844, which nicely brackets the period of his hat on the basis of form.

A paper label inside the box identifies the owner as, “James Van Vranken.” There are several candidates since militia records are far from complete and the family was spread over Albany and Schenectady Counties. One candidate could be James Van Vranken of Niskayuna, Schenectady County, who lived 1810 to 1872. The time frame fits, though there were certainly other family members by that name.

The hat, formerly in Bill Guthman’s private collection (Sotheby’s 2003, Lot 54,) is in excellent condition and is also illustrated in Campbell and O’Donnell (Am. Mil. Headgear Insignia.) The body is very good. The binding, cockade, and cording are all in place and secure. One button is missing at upper right and the eagle shows losses to the silvering. Bullion tassels are in place. The lining and the graphics of the embossed maker’s address in the hat and on the box are very strong. The hat displays impressively and like the best of militia material combines history and strong eye-appeal. [sr]

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