Her first hat was a castoff, an ancient, unwanted thing that Rosa Keehn found when she was a little girl cleaning her aunt's garage. She put it on, loved it, and she still has it.
It is now more than 60 years and 300 hats later, and Keehn, 71, a retired South Pasadena school teacher, has made a career of not discarding old hats. In her Alhambra home, she not only has every one she ever owned, she also has the ones given to her by other hat freaks.
She has built a public presentation around her hats. The oldest in her collection date back to the 1830s and all of them represent cultures, styles, evolutions in the art of millinery and periods of history. In Keehn's hands--and on her head--hats are always enlightening, sometimes educational and usually funny. They reflect the personality of their wearers, she says.
At a recent program for Phi Delta Sorority in Pasadena, Keehn donned a 1919 wide-brimmed woman's hat that touched her eyebrows and announced, "This is for when you go into a restaurant and ask for the best table. You get it."
The audience cheered.
Piling a swath of feathers on another wide-brimmed number and strutting like a peacock, she said, "Creatures in feathers act like they own the country. If you own anything with feathers, keep it.
A little old purple number, she said, might have been worn "by the ladies across the tracks. Or someone who would defy convention."
Besides entertaining at club meetings, luncheons and even formal dinners, Keehn educates with hats. Once when teaching a crash course in English for visiting Japanese college students, she got them to make up stories while donning her hats. The result forced them into more fluent English, she said.
Going public with "the hat thing," as Keehn calls it, started in a weak moment more than 15 years ago when she resolved to get rid of the useless things that were consuming too much space in her home. Her lifetime collection of hats was bagged and destined for the Salvation Army when Keehn and her husband, Charles, had dinner guests one evening. Just for fun, they tried on the hats "one last time," and once again Keehn got hooked, and once again she couldn't let them go.
From this evolved entertainment for family and friends, and finally performances for social groups that have continued for 15 years.
She is a member of historical societies of her native Reedley, Calif., and of Alhambra, Monterey Park and Fresno and Tulare counties. She is a member of Huntington Corral of Westerners' International, an organization for writers and researchers of western history.
"Collecting is a disease you acquire when young and it gets worse as you get older," Keehn said.
Her enormous turn-of-the-century Alhambra home houses collections of antique furniture, several kinds of dishes, miniature Victorian houses, matchboxes, books, pictures of the four Keehn children and four grandchildren, and what appears to be every periodical ever published on Southern California history.
Through others' generosity Keehn has an old cowboy hat once owned by silent film actor Tim McCoy; a wide-brimmed, no-nonsense number worn by a suffragette in a 1919 parade in Washington, D.C.; a red wool hat worn at Calvin Coolidge's inauguration in 1925; a high-crowned man's "wedding hat" and a black lace Schiaparelli original from the 1950s.
She has endless pillboxes, cloches, bandeaus, snoods and little fur things that "lose their dignity fast because they're small." She has cartons of cartwheel hats, Stetsons, homburgs and huge post-Victorian marvels of architecture "that will never lose their dignity."
Keehn said that hats originated as a means of keeping men's heads warm. The earliest women's hats, she said, were adaptations of men's styles. Women required large hats in the 1800s, Keehn said, "because no self-respecting woman cut her hair after the age of 7."
Keehn, in fact, suggests that sunbonnets may have helped to win the West.
"A woman's morale is directly related to how clean her hair is," she said. "In the westward movement, women literally walked across the country, and sunbonnets kept their hair clean.
"Water was scarce and they couldn't waste it washing hair. . . . Without the sunbonnet women would not have come west, so all the men would have gone back and there wouldn't be anyone here."