The making of straw hats goes back to the 14th century. What started as a cottage industry developed into a large scale industry in the 19th century. Often using cheap child labour to produce the straw plaits, from the age of 4 years old.
Straw prior to the 1800’s was laboriously cut by hand with knives, it was a slow and unreliable process. Straw splitters changed all this, they were invented possibly by the prisoner of wars in Britain, who used a lot of straw for their marquetry work.
The first straw splitters were bone with wooden handles, but by 1815 a paddle shaped straw splitter had been invented ( See image 1 an antique treen straw cutter). This often had several sizes of fins to produce different thicknesses of straw splints. This humble device transformed straw plaiting in the UK enabling finer straw of superior quality to be produced rivalling European countries.
The straw splitter shown has five different sizes one with 7 fins, two six a five and a four. The straw would be pulled through one of these splitters dividing the straw into different thicknesses of splints depending on which size was required.
This straw would then be plaited and went on to be used to manufacture straw hats and other ware. Luton being the main area for the hat production for over 200 years with several other counties such as Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Essex and Hertfordshire feeding into it.
Sometimes you can find these straw splitters with names stamped on them.
Who would have thought this straw splitter was so important in transforming the straw plaiting industry in the UK in the 19th century?