Slap on a bowler, boater, bearskin, beret, or boss of the plains hat, it’s time for obliquely headgear-related trivia.
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1. I used to think that thing about not wearing white after Labor Day was odd, but it doesn’t compare to early 20th-century etiquette demanding no straw hats after September 15th. For indeed, what manner of ill-bred and ill-mannered wastrel, what sort of moral derelict, would deign to don such summer accoutrements as autumn arrives? But why only hats, and not other summer gear like seersucker suits, and why September 15th? Is it possible this rule is arbitrary and capricious?
The penalty for wearing white after Labor Day is shame and ostracism. The consequences for belated straw-hat-wearing were not nearly so trivial: one risked being assaulted by a gang of ruffians, who might tear the hat from one’s head and smash it to bits. So important was the rule and so dire the consequences that newspapers routinely warned of the approaching deadline days in advance, lest an unawares hat-wearer be assailed.
In 1922, a band of Manhattan youth began forcibly un-hatting pedestrians on September 13th—thereby violating a perhaps more important rule of etiquette, which is that one can’t just unilaterally change the rules of etiquette. The event might have been limited to an otherwise unremarkable mass hatricide, but the youth made the mistake of de-tamming a group of stevedores. The castigated stevedores fought back, inciting a boater brawl, straw hat skirmish, fedora fracas, deerstalker donnybrook, and ten-gallon tussle substantial enough to stop traffic on the Manhattan Bridge.
Rather than being cowed by stevedore-administered pummelings, ani-hat partisans were emboldened. They returned in greater numbers the next night: a band of nearly 1000 hat-etiquette sectarians roved the streets, wielding spiked boards and a radical anti-hat agenda; they were judge, jury, and executioner, administering street justice on those who violated the unflinching dictums of HAT LAW. I think this was a deleted scene in The Warriors.
Newspaper headlines declared “Straw Hat Smashing Orgy Bares Heads from Battery to Bronx.” A Times op-ed came out with a strong anti-beating take, professing the “inalienable right of a man to wear a straw hat in a snowstorm, if he desires” (tell me more about your controversial stance against people being beaten with boards for their headwear, brave editors). The “Straw Hat Riot” continued for several nights before petering out, at a cost of hundreds of arrests, dozens of injuries, and the premature death of countless straw hats—not to mention the immeasurable loss of dignity suffered by foppish dandies with indecently exposed pates.
Just three years later, Cal Coolidge would tempt both fate and marauding bands of doctrinaire anti-hat splinter groups by donning a straw boater on September 19th. So far as history records, he was neither mercilessly beaten nor ridiculed for this flouting of all tenets of propriety, although the media did comment on his appalling vulgarity.
Side note: Drinking straws date back at least to the Sumerians! The oldest known straw dates to 3000 BC and is made of gold and lapis lazuli.
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2. Knocking hats off dates back centuries. The hennin was a veiled, cone-shaped hat worn by women of nobility in the 15th century to signify their social status. Disgusted by the cost and opulence of the hats, a radical friar urged children to pluck the hats from women’s heads—even offering indulgences (“get out of sin free” cards) to successful hat poachers. No records survive of how many hats were thus absconded with.
One woman often depicted wearing a hennin is Christine de Pizan. Born in 1365, Pizan was widowed with three children at the age of 25, and began writing poetry. Sometime around 1400 she read Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, in which Meun portrayed Woman as seductress, femme fatale, destroyer of good men. Pizan called it what it was: slander. Foregoing her desire to put Muen in a figure-four leglock until he submitted, Pizan instead responded with her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies. In the book, famous women from history form the “foundations” of a city, demonstrating that yes, in fact, women have value. Which is pretty righteous, for 1405. At one point, in a dialogue with an angel, the protagonist suggests that women must be less than, because surely so many learned men could not be wrong? The angel responds by doubling over in laughter (metaphorically). Pizan’s lauded by some as one of the first feminist authors, and certainly the first to wear a hennin.
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3. Traditionally, hatmaking required feltmaking, and feltmaking required carroting—separating animal fur from animal skin. Carroting was originally done using camel urine, but as feltmaking spread to areas without camels, and apparently without other animals as well, felters began using their own urine. All this time peeing on animal skins, and one guy’s pee kept producing top-notch felt. What was his secret? He was given mercury pills to treat his syphilis, and so hatmakers reasoned that mercury made for better felt, and mercury compounds became crucial for felting in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is from the trail of human wreckage caused by inhalation of toxic mercury vapors that we get the phrase “mad as a hatter.” Or, maybe it’s not: by another etymology, it derives from the old verb “hatter” (to harrass), or the old noun “atter” (poison). Or maybe it comes from the actions of a solitary hatter, the ascetic Roger Crab (1621-1680). Crab the hatter was, I assure you, quite mad.
After a spells as hatmaker, haberdasher, and soldier in Cromwell’s army—where he suffered a possibly-relevant massive head wound and was imprisoned for his alignment with the anti-establishment Levellers—Crab took to a life of hermitude. Nominally a Christian, he was once put in the stocks for not observing the Sabbath, and later joined the Philadelphian Society, a group of Protestant mystics. His obsession with purity led him to give away his possessions and wear sackcloths as clothing; his diet went from vegetarian to vegan to nothing but grass and herbs, because at this point he was apparently a ruminant and probably regularly using the phrase “precious bodily fluids.” He was also celibate, supposedly by choice but when your vision of morality involves a lot of cud chewing, you wonder whose choice.
While Crab may have been but probably was not the origin of the phrase “mad as a hatter,” the eccentric furniture dealer Theophilus Carter may have been but probably wasn’t the basis for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. Carter had earned that nickname by standing in the doorway to his shop, wearing a top hat, just…waiting.
Moral of the story: if not for a syphilitic milliner and toxic medical treatments, thousands of hatmakers might never have fallen victim to mercury poisoning, and Alice in Wonderland wouldn’t have had the mad hatter. Incidentally, everything was based on a bad induction: it’s the nitrogen in urine that’s important, not the mercury.
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4. The Hardee hat was the official dress hat of the Union Army during the Civil War, even though the designer, William Hardee, later became a lieutenant general in the CSA and most soldiers opted not to wear it because it was so hot.
Wilbur Hardee, unrelated as far as I can tell, founded more than eighty five restaurants, including Do Drop Inn, Biscuit Town, Hot Dog City, and Beef and Shake. He opened the first Hardee’s in 1960 in Greenville, North Carolina. On the strength of the hexagonal “Huskee” burger, the chain quickly expanded, making quick work of local burger joint The Pentagon. After partnering with some local businessmen, Hardee got drunk and lost a bunch of stock to them in a poker game. Realizing that he now owned less than half the company, he sold the remaining stock for $37,000 in 1963. Let he has not drunkenly lost a majority share of their successful fast food business in a high-stakes poker game cast the first stone.
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5. A phrygian cap is a “brimless, limp, conical cap,” popularly worn by Rip Van Winkle, gnomes, and Jacques Cousteau. It’s more commonly called the liberty cap, as it was adopted by French revolutionaries in the late 18th and early 19th century.
It’s said that French knitters would sit beside the guillotine, knitting new liberty caps even while the executions were carried out; it’s also said that eventually the upper classes took to wearing them to slip unnoticed past revolutionaries waiting to mount their heads on pikes. The liberty cap remains an important symbol: the French emblem to this day wears the bonnet rouge, and it’s featured in Masonic iconography. Even decades after the revolution, the hat was briefly banned outright during a period of political turmoil. But all this fuss is based on a lie: there’s no such thing as liberty. No, wait—a different lie: when the revolutionaries appropriated the freedom symbol, they’d confused the phrygian cap with the pileus, a Roman hat worn by freed slaves.
The phrygian was also popularized by the Smurfs. In the 1950s, Mononominal Belgian cartoonist Peyo was penning a comic set in the middle ages, featuring a page named Johan and his diminutive, foolish sidekick, Peewit. In a 1957 strip, the pair discover a magic flute that transports them to a colony of minuscule blue humanoids. The Smurfs—called Les Schtroumpfs in the original French—spun off the next year, but took a quarter-century to get to the US, when the TV series debuted.
A French sociologist recently wrote on the politics of the Smurfs—the totalitarian, racially pure society; a villain with a hooked nose that’s obsessed with gold; men defined by talents and a woman (Smurfette/Schtroumpfette) defined only by her femininity and created by black magic to destabilize Smurf society; the thinly veiled Stalin reference of the red-bedecked Papa Smurf; the socialist agenda of storylines like when Finance Smurf introduces currency, only for the Smurf society to give it up when poverty and corruption ensue. There’s a lot going on with the Smurfs.
Actual Smurf names: Greedy Smurf (Schtroumpf Gourmand in the original French), Pastrycook Smurf, Alchemist Smurf, Enamored Smurf, and my favorite: Marco Smurfro, who brings back spices to Smurftopia. Not joking.