Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 21 in Today I Learned – Straw Hat Riots of 1922

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You know how you aren’t supposed to wear white after Labor Day, or wear black shoes or a black belt with khakis, or avoid clashing patterns? Imagine there were legitimate social repercussions of these rules beyond petty gossip (except the black shoes and brown belt – c’mon, you look like you’re about to lecture me on your PC setup at a high school dance). The Straw Hat Riots are the result of people being downright indignant about perceived dress code faults. Why, you could stay they were riotous!

Somewhere in the late 19th century, men became stuffy about unwritten dress codes. I presume it was all the repressed sexuality of the late-Victorian age – maybe rubbing one out without being the subject of a tri-state scandal would have loosened the mood a bit. One particular rule became a particular sticking point – no straw hats after September 15th. This was an age when everyone wore hats outside all the time, lest you be some sort of psychopath, but straw hats were SUMMER ONLY, and after September 15th, men were to wear their finest felt hats. Why such a specific day? The New York Times once explained that any man who wore a straw hat after this day “may even be a Bolshevik, a communal enemy, a potential subverter of the social order.” Yes – you were a communist revolutionary if you doffed your cap during the wrong season and a day – A DAY – after September 15th. Take a second to appreciate that you can wear whatever fedora you prefer during any season, and you can jerk it scandal-free.

As started above, a sartorial faux pas currently only results in a side eyed glance or a tsk tsking of a mild taboo, but in the early 20th century, your hat would be torn off your head and stomped into dust by rowdy children if caught out of season, especially in fashionable New York City. It may be important to provide a bit of historical context – this is between the World Wars, where immigrants are flooding Ellis Island and settling down wherever they can, most of whom speak no English, let alone have any idea of the minutia of social codes. So imagine – a bunch of immigrants fleeing European fascism or starvation come to America only to have these little shits stomp on your nice hat you bought after fourteen hours in a factory that mauled your fingers. You would be pissed! And just think, this was before teens became Monster energy drink guzzling and Juul-vaping domestic terrorists.

In 1922, things had come to a head (pun 100% intended, a-thank you), and these prepubescent hooligans were roaring to get to the cap-snatching, so much so they started on September 13th! Why, these straw hat wearing gentlemen were just that! They weren’t Bolsheviks just yet! After hats had begun being snatched and stomped, gentlemen reacted predictably – by beating the shit out of some juveniles.  Bonfires of straw hats were started around New York City, and the police were called in. The first night resulted in seven people being convicted of disorderly conduct.

This was no one-day affair. The next three days involved riots of hat-stomping and child-fighting, with the police on full guard for “hat-hunting hoodlums”. Hat-wearers laced their caps with nails to inflict damage on any on potential snatchees, while gangs of teenagers started wielding bats, some with nails driven through the top. One person claimed a mob of 1,000 teens roamed through Manhattan grabbing hats, only to run into trouble when they clashed with dock workers who weren’t having it. The “1,000 person mob” part was disputed, but the daylong traffic standstill while dock workers fought teenagers was not. To reiterate – this is over straw hat etiquette shortly after World War I ended. Imagine being this mad about ANYTHING after surviving artillery shelling in a shit- and water-logged trench in Belgium.

Eventually the riots subsumed as gentlemen began to unveil their felt caps with the official season change, but 1922 was not the end of the stupidest riots in history – in 1924, a man was KILLED over his straw hat. I am of the opinion that human life was considered significantly less valuable across history until recently (note – this only applies to white Americans. Sorry rest of the world). There have been other riots related to apparel throughout American history (Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles when black and Hispanic youths were decidedly wearing TOO MUCH fabric during World War II so people got mad; the Hard Hat Riots when union construction workers started beating the shit out of anti-war hippies in 1970 in New York after appropriating their hatwear) (unrelated but how incredible is this country that there are THREE notable riots resulting from fashion choice?!?), but none will ever top the teens being mad about straw hats and subsequently organizing to bring New York City to a halt. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve never been more proud to be an America or more terrified of roving gangs of teenagers.

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