In 1955, Mamie Eisenhower’s hat rested on many Vancouver women’s heads. The Clark County Historical Museum has the photos to prove it.
All this began simply enough with a ladies’ hat exchange by the Soroptimist Club of Vancouver to raise money for restoring the Vancouver Barracks Officers’ Quarters.
The local Soroptimist branch was founded in 1941 at the Evergreen Hotel the night before the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, the club sold war bonds. Two decades earlier, the first Soroptimist group formed in Oakland, Calif. Its first project — save the redwoods.
The name Soroptimist joins two Latin words, soror (sister) and optima (best). Its volunteers work to improve women’s economic status by assisting them with the education and training to succeed. During the 1940s and ’50s, first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower championed the Soroptimists.
Throughout the 1930s through 1950s, hats were a requisite woman’s accessory. Before Jackie Kennedy, petite Mamie Eisenhower was the nation’s fashion icon, and newspapers buzzed with her seasonal fashions. Across the country, women mimicked Mamie’s bangs and sought her designer hats. When the local Soroptimist club needed to raise funds, someone wrote the White House asking for one of Mamie’s hats. She responded, “I am delighted to send you one.”
The chapeau arrived a day late. Too late for a Jan. 12, 1955, hat exhibit. Wisely the group shifted the fundraiser to Feb. 9. The first 100 women donating $10 got to have a picture taken wearing Mamie’s hat, and their photos would be added to an album for the fundraising display.
Local media blasted out the news. The campaign was a success. So much so that other Soroptimist groups asked to borrow Mamie’s hat for their fundraisers. But the Vancouver group held the hat closely.
For a time, Mamie’s hat sat in the Grant House Collection when the Soroptimists ran the house as a volunteer museum. When the Grant House turned into a restaurant, they got the boot.
And Mamie’s hat? It wound its way, along with many of the $10 photos, into the Clark County Historical Museum archives.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.