Ultra Hats was an immigrant family business, established in 1933.
The donor's grandfather migrated from Poland to Hamburg when he was about 19. He was apprenticed in a dress factory. He then moved to Vienna and established a hat factory around the 1890s, becoming the largest hat manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The business was forcibly taken during the Nazi era, but was handed back to the family after World War II.
The donor and his mother migrated to Australia in 1927, and his father followed in 1928, joining an uncle in Melbourne who had established a hat factory in Rae Street, North Fitzroy. Other family members also came.
In 1933 the donor's father established a separate business, Ultra Hats. He had seen felt hat punching in Europe and brought the technology to Melbourne. Samples of the hats were shown to Sidney Myer, who accepted them, and were soon selling well. Ultra Sport Hats were particularly successful. After World War II broke out, the company began to make postal hats. Business thrived, and immediately after the War, Ultra Hats placed advertisements in The Argus for 'Women from the services' to learn the millinery trade - 'we do not work Saturdays' (as a Jewish company).
The donor began work in the factory after serving in the Australian Navy during World War II. Showing promise, he was sent to New York for training in a manufactory. Unfortunately, due to post-war arrangements relating to foreigners, he was unable to be paid, but was fortunate to have an uncle and aunt in New York (his uncle was a master printer). He later worked for another New York manufactory - Henry Lish - which had plants in 39th Street and Boston. The donor met Henry Lish, and was impressed by the revolutionary nature of his factory. He wrote to his father describing the operation, and his father initially didn't take his son seriously, so astonishing was the technology he described. After two or three years, however, his father joined him in New York, and father and son together imported the machinery to Australia. The donor's status as an ex-serviceman smoothed the importation process.
The Ultra Hats factory, at the corner of Exhibition and Latrobe Streets, employed as many as 150 people making hats. The company's focus was copying rather than original design. Ultra felt hats had a special finish, due to buffing in two directions.
Ultra Hats was a family business. The donor's mother was vital to the business - the donor said his father 'could not have built up the business without her'. She administered the business side. For years the family lived above a shop in Rae Street during the week - conveniently close to the factory during busy times. The donor went to school in Fitzroy (although began his schooling in Middle Park). On the weekends they relaxed in a house in Gardenvale. Sadly, the donor's mother passed away in 1952, but the business continued.
As the years passed, the donor saw the hat market dying, particularly when churches stopped requiring parishioners to wear them. He persuaded his father to close down mass production. Around the same time, they began making a new hat line - the Kangol - featured in the David Jones window in Sydney. They took over the Kangol licence around 1956. They then switched to importing rather than manufacturing, and soon 'sewed up' the market for women's bowling hats.
By the early 1960s the business began to look to other areas. The proprietors brought Dianell (Danielle?) hairpieces to Australia, which featured a special hair colour matching system. They then branched into wigs, beginning with human hair, then moving to synthetic hair, featuring the Kovar brand. By 1972, the wig market was saturated, and began to decline. The donor saw less personal business practices becoming the norm, and decided that he no longer enjoyed being in business. He handed over the business in 1990; it later ceased to operate.
Advertisements for staff, The Argus, 1945
Advertisement for Ultra Hats at Myer, The Argus, 1945
Pers. comm., donor (wishes to remain anonymous)