OK, first go to this Amherst Magazine page and observe the strange device there pictured. The magazine says it “comes from the college’s Archives and Special Collections and is currently in President Anthony W. Marx’s office. It’s an intriguing object, but no one at the college knows what its original purpose might have been.” The mystery has been solved, but you may want to cogitate upon it for a moment and speculate before going to the extended entry and discovering the solution.
The answer was revealed at BoingBoing by Mel Johnson and Anne of Explananda: it’s a conformateur, a device “apparently patented in the 1850s by one Monsieur Maillard” for registering the exact shape of a head so that a hat can be made to fit it precisely (and an obscure enough word that it’s not in the OED). Anne links to a droll image of one sitting on a head, and a Sunset article by Peter Fish describes its use:
To ensure a good fit—tight, so the hat won’t fly off in a strong prairie wind—Rand gives the outside of your head a lot more attention than it’s used to. First comes a tape measure.
“You’re between sizes,” Rand tells me. “Seven and a quarter and seven and three-eighths.”
Rand then brings out the conformateur, which looks like the offspring of a homburg and a manual typewriter. The conformateur, used by 19th-century hatmakers (Rand’s four conformateurs are all more than 100 years old), is pressed down upon you to produce a paper template of your skull in all its imperfection.
“My head is lopsided,” I say when Rand shows me my template.
“A lot of people’s are,” he says. “There are some really odd-shaped heads out there.”