Dumbest Civil Unrest Ever: The Straw Hat Riots

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, men were expected to wear straw hats in the summer, but switch to felt hats in mid-September. If a man didn’t switch to felt, mischievous youths would enjoy knocking the hat off and smashing it on the ground. Hat-Smashing got so bad in September of 1922, it led to riots throughout lower Manhattan. In this episode we talk about the Straw Hat Riots and then talk with Comedian and Actor Hal Sparks!

Wilmington coup

Well this is interesting. I knew nothing about this one. I took a look into it and I’m not sure there’s been civil unrest over a dumber thing. This is maybe the dumbest thing anyone’s rioted over. But that, of course, makes it interesting.

You may have heard about the tradition that forbids the wearing of white after a labor day. It’s a social taboo to do so and it’s one of those traditions from the past that has long been removed from its origin. It’s an antiquated social rule that nobody adheres to anymore, but the reason for it is status.

Before we could brag about our vacations on Instagram and Facebook, the clothes we wore let those around us know what sort of vacations we could afford, if we could afford them at all. People who were of means and wealth could afford to vacation, traveling away to warmer climates where it was customary to wear white linen clothing. Then, when they returned back home, those members of the upper echelons of social and economic class felt the need to separate themselves from poorer members of society. In a place like New York City where there was little or no geographical separation between the classes, the way they would separate themselves was by wearing these white clothes. After all, a working class person wouldn’t be able to wear white because it would get dirty. So light colors were commonly worn by richer people, dark colors by poorer people. Labor Day was seen as the end of the Summer, so if you wore white after Labor Day, it was signaling to society that you had the money to take Fall and Winter Vacations. It’s an antiquated social rule rooted in classism.

There’s a similar tradition in other countries with fingernails. Men in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Turkey have a tradition of wearing one of the nails of their pinky finger much longer than their other nails. The reason they do this is the understanding that if you worked a manual labor job, you wouldn’t be able to wear that fingernail long without it being broken or worn down. It’s another tradition rooted in showing your social and economic status.

And that’s what brings us to Straw Hats. For men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a hat was an important part of clothing, particularly in public. Men wore the Homburg-style hat with their semi casual clothing, which was a popular felt-style hat with a short brim. Any time you were wearing a jacket or blazer, you would be wearing a homburg hat. But for summer months, that would often be replaced with a hat called a Boater. Now these days, you’ve probably seen a boater hat associated with political rallies or barbershop quartets. It’s a straw hat with a flat top, a short, flat brim and a ribbon around the base. This type of hat was the equivalent in formality to the Homburg, but worn in the summer to signify the change in seasons. A less formal version was the Panama hat, which is a larger brim version that Teddy Roosevelt had made popular when he was photographed wearing one while observing the construction of the Panama Canal. These straw hats were only accepted as summer headwear. It’s similar to wearing white clothes in that way. Different regions would switch to straw hats on different days, but there would usually be a regionally-declared “Straw Hat” day when men would switch from their felt hats to straw – usually around May 15. It was sort of a celebration that summer had arrived. Everyone loved to switch to their straw hats. 

Likewise, when September 15th arrived, that meant Summer was over and it was time to switch back to felt hats. And if you didn’t…there was hell to pay.

Think about the last time you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. You might have eaten some traditionally Irish food like corned beef and cabbage, drank a green beer and you may have gotten pinched if you forgot to wear green that day. It’s a weird tradition for sure, but where did it come from? Well according to the New York Irish Center, wearing green symbolizes Irish Republicanism, the group that campaigned for Ireland to become independent in the late 18th century. And the reason we get pinched is because of the folklore that green makes you invisible to leprechauns and naughty leprechauns apparently like to pinch people. So if you don’t wear green and someone pinches you, they are cosplaying as a leprechaun. That or they’re grossly appropriating leprechaun culture. Either way, here’s a social clothing rule that is openly enforced and understood with a sort of transgression against the culprit. And that’s what happened if a man wore a straw hat after Felt Hat Day.

The date to switch back to felt hats was originally September 1st, but had eventually been pushed back a few weeks. In some areas, it was September 13, in some areas it was September 20th. But as we talked about earlier, men were supposed to switch from their summer boater hats to warmer felt hats when the seasons got colder, and regardless of the actual weather, this date was September 15th in New York. If a man was seen wearing his straw hat after that date, then his buddies would taunt him and – for some close friends, it was even acceptable to knock the hat off his head and stomp on it, ruining it. This was common practice between stock brokers on wall-street. They were friends, and it was friendly ribbing.

At some point, this started moving from being a practice between friends to being a prank that mischievous teenagers would do to complete strangers. If they saw a man wearing a straw hat past the acceptable date, they’d knock it off his head and smash it before running away. This became so prevalent that newspapers would run warnings to men leading up to September 15th to be sure to switch hats. Of course, many of these warnings were put in the paper by the local Hat Salesman, next to an ad for their finest felt Homburgs. 

In 1922, September 15 was only two days away and a group of kids decided that they couldn’t wait for Felt Hat Day. They were going hat-smashing in Mulberry Bend. Mulberry Bend was a rough area of New York. It’s now the area known as Chinatown, but in that time, it was a part of the city filled with young street gangs like the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. It was known throughout New York as one of the worst neighborhoods. Upper class people didn’t go there. It was seen as the place where poor immigrants lived with crime, filth and depravity. On September 13th, a group of teens ran up and down Mulberry Bend, knocking and smashing straw hats off factory workers who were wearing them. After all – they wanted to smash hats and in two days, there’d be a lot less hats to smash. When they smashed the hats of a group of dock workers, the dock workers fought back, turning into a huge brawl that is said to have even stopped traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Police stopped the fight, arrested some people and everyone else went home. But the next night, the same thing happened. This time it was worse.

This time the group of hat-smashers had grown to over 1,000. Some of them were armed with baseball bats. Some of those baseball bats had nails driven through them protruding from the barrels. The thugs went up and down lower Manhattan, knocking off straw hats, smashing them and beating up anyone who fought back. Multiple men were hospitalized. Huge groups of teens smashed hats on Amsterdam Avenue and more on 109th. The police once again did very little, but eventually stopped the rioting. Only a few of the boys were jailed – and the longest sentence served was 3 days.

The New York Tribune printed a story about the Straw Hat Riots a few days later. The article says “Boys who were guided by the calendar rather than the weather, and most of all by their own trouble-making proclivities, indulged in a straw hat smashing orgy throughout the city last night. A dozen or more were arrested and seven were spanked ignominiously by their parents in the East 104th police station by order of the lieutenant at the desk.”

Hat smashing continued every year until the fashion of wearing the boater hats died out. Some years, hat-smashing incidents were worse than others, but 1922 in New York was the largest scale incident – except for the time in 1924, when a man was actually murdered for wearing a straw hat past the acceptable date. 

So there you go. The Straw Hat Riots. A ridiculously stupid reason to riot. When Brian sent me this topic, he sent it with a note that said “this is the most white-people-led riot I’ve ever heard in my life. To which I replied, “It’s definitely in the top-two.”

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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