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What is a Haberdasher?

Haberdashery is an old term used to denote hat sales, among other items.
Haberdashers will often carry notions such as buttons.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Images By: Ian Bruce, Norgal
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2014
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A haberdasher is someone who deals in small sewing articles related to clothing, or in clothing itself. The meaning of the word is actually different, depending on where in the world one is. In the United States, most people take the word to mean someone who deals in men's clothing, including suits, accessories, and so forth. In Britain and Australia, a haberdasher is someone who sells sewing notions such as buttons, zippers, trim, lace, and other sundries. The divergent meanings of this word reflect the divergence in spoken English which occurred surprisingly early in American history.

This word first emerged in the 13th century, and initially it was used in reference to peddlers who sold any number of sundries, from pots and pans to buttons. The term may come from a Scandinavian root, but its origins are obscure. It certainly does not have anything to do with “dashing” anywhere, and it may come from hapertas, a word meaning “small wares.” Whatever the origins, it was in common use by the 16th century.

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Around the 1700s, divergent meanings for this word began to appear. In some regions, people started using the term specifically to refer to a seller of hats. Although English speakers in Britain thought of haberdashers as salesmen of various sewing supplies, Americans referred to men's clothing stores as “haberdasheries.” This may have been the result of a trend towards off-the-rack suits in the United States, and perhaps some people who sold sewing supplies ended up selling men's garments instead, retaining their names and confusing the meaning of “haberdasher.”

This term is not widely used today, although some old businesses retain the name “haberdasher's” or “haberdashery,” reflecting the fact that they were established in a bygone era. Some people today use the term in reference to hat sales, and the profession also turns up in books set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some people also simply enjoy the old-fashioned sound of “haberdasher,” including the word in parodies, poems, and fanciful stories.

Some notable people have been employed as haberdashers at some point in their lives. Harry S. Truman, a former President of the United States, worked as a haberdasher in his youth, as did Captain James Cook, the famed British explorer. In Cook's case, he was actually a full apprentice, training to take over the business before eventually losing interest and pursuing a life at sea.

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