By Carlienne A. Frisch
“I began collecting hats when I was l2,” said Anne Jans of rural Waterville. “My parents, John and Susie Smisek, encouraged each of their four children to start a collection of items that interested us, and then to read about and research our hobby.”
Anne, who is known as “The Hat Lady,” has collection of women’s vintage apparel and accessories that includes nearly 2,000 hats, 375 hat boxes (including names like Saks Fifth Avenue), about 500 hatpins, nearly 150 dresses from the late 1800s through the 1960s, 30 purses, 50 pairs of gloves, and 25-30 pairs of shoes. About three-fourths of each collection has come as gifts. Anne records each item’s source, decade, material, color and decoration. She also numbers and tags each one for insurance purposes.
Anne uses pieces from her collections in teaching family and consumer science at Jordan High School and Middle School, especially in the fashion design class.
“We do a bit of historical context within clothing -- tailoring, craftsmanship and detail. We see all of the principles of design, and the many components they used--the whole costume. They knew how to accent everything, how the hat accented their face, how the hat, gloves, shoes and purse made a statement.”
Before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anne enjoyed wearing vintage hats and gloves to events such as church tea parties, saying, “It’s interesting to see how women carry themselves when wearing a hat and gloves.” She also credits her hat collection for her meeting the person who would become her husband. (More about that later.)
Anne’s parents, of course, had no idea that this planned educational experience would lead Anne to become known as “The Hat Girl” and eventually, “The Hat Lady.” Although Anne’s siblings also became avid collectors, none of them acquired the size and variety of collections that Anne has achieved.
“My sister, Amy, began collecting first-edition books and then green Depression ware and other green kitchen utensils,” Anne said. “Mark still adds baseball and football cards to his collection of 100,000 cards, and it’s interesting that Pete, who collected mechanical banks, is now an accountant.”
Because Anne’s parents often took her along with them when they clerked at auctions, one day in May 1992, she had the opportunity to be the high bidder for two boxes of hats that had belonged to a family friend.
“I had been collecting dolls,” Anne said, “but Thelma, the lady who had inspired me, had passed away. I couldn’t really afford dolls, so I bought her hats to remember Thelma.”
When Anne later lost the bid for an individual hat--a salmon-pink creation from the 1950s, trimmed with a rhinestone-covered arrow--she convinced the high bidder to accept several of Anne’s newly-purchased hats in exchange for the pink treasure.
Anne’s purchases at the auction were noticed by a few Le Sueur County Pioneer Power Association members, so Anne was asked to display some of Thelma’s hats at the Pioneer Power Annual Threshing Show. This led to the doubling of Anne’s collection.
“By the end of the show, people were bringing hats to me from home. I didn’t really know I was collecting hats, but I went from 20 to 40 hats that weekend,” she said.
The hat collection also led to Anne develop public speaking skills. In seventh grade, she chose hats as the subject for her competitive informative speech and seriously began researching hats.
“I talked about hats from 1900 to 1960, how they had changed and why. That eight-minute speech was the foundation for my public speaking. After that, I did five to six shows a day at Pioneer Power each year,” she said.
Anne has fond memories of her teen years at Pioneer Power Association events. She recalled, “I played kick-the-can, tag and other games with other teens on the playground after dark. At 14, I met Andy Jans on the merry-go-round. He was 16, and we began dating the following year. He had his tractor, I had my hats, and it was love.” The couple married in 2002.
Through her presentations at Pioneer Power events, Anne became known as “The Hat Girl,” leading to a 1997 feature story in Country magazine. She began making presentations to women’s organizations, at conventions and at senior centers, which she still does. When necessary, she was excused from school because of the educational value of her public speaking. At one presentation, Anne met a retired milliner who taught her to determine a hat’s age by its fabric, noting the difference in the feel of 1920s and 1940s velvet. Anne also began studying historic costume books and old magazines. Later, she took a historic costumes class as part of her course work at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Eventually, the question of how to house Anne’s collections had to be answered. Part of the basement in the Jans’ home was remodeled specifically to house them. She makes good use of the space.
“The 375 hat boxes are all full. I fit as many hats into a box as possible, so the hats hold their shape,” she said.
Anne’s 12-year-old daughter, Alenka, has been following in her mother’s footsteps, both with collecting vintage clothing and with making presentations at Pioneer Power events. Alenka has a collection of 15 children’s hats (which was begun by gifts from her grandparents) and nearly 50 girls’ dresses, as well as boys’ clothes from the 1920s through the 1960s, children’s rubber boots from the 1940s and several snow suits. When she takes part in presentations, she often wears an entire vintage outfit including dress, shoes and hat. Alenka’s prize possession, though, is a pair of feed sack underpants that proclaim “100 pounds” on the rear. They are, however, too large to wear.