That Time New Yorkers Rioted Over Straw Hats

“We have rules. Without them, we live with the animals.” These are the words that govern the criminal world at the heart of the John Wick movies. It is also the philosophy around which civilized society is structured. It’s one thing to encourage individualism, but common decency demands that certain practices not be thrown aside.

The rules that are so vital in maintaining the separation between humans and animals were flagrantly ignored on a fateful day in 1922. It should have been no surprise to anyone when violence erupted. Ordinarily polite, cultured citizens were reduced to chaotic rioters in a desperate attempt to restore the proper order of things.

Why did the streets of Manhattan erupt with riots? What was it that pushed refined ladies and gentlemen past the tipping point? It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. More to the point, it was the straw hat.

It wasn’t that long ago that hats were a big deal. No properly dressed adult would be seen outdoors without appropriate head attire.

As the 19th century came to a close, a type of hat known as a boater became popular. It was made of stiff sennit straw, had a flat crown and brim and was decorated with a ribbon around the crown. The boater got its name from its use as part of the regular attire of the gondoliers of Venice.

The “Boater” straw hat

When boaters became fashionable, it was with the understanding that they were warm-weather items. As such, a rule of fashion arose that men should only wear straw hats between May 15 and September 15. Outside of those dates, it was considered tacky, to say the least.

You’re probably thinking about other rules of fashion, such as never wearing red to a wedding; red and green should never be seen without a color in between, and never wearing white after Labor Day. We call these practices “rules,” but if someone doesn’t follow the rule, there aren’t any consequences other than embarrassment.

It’s a different story as far as straw hats go. At least, that was the case 100 years ago when fashion rebels dared to push the boundaries for the straw hat season. Ordinarily, it is young people who thumb their noses at established traditions. Not so with the straw hat. When adults threatened the status quo, teenagers took to the streets to strike a blow for conformity.

For a number of years, men who ignored the end of straw hat season might find themselves suddenly hatless as they walked the streets. Boys took delight in knocking the hats off the heads of rule breakers, and since the expectations of the fashion world were so well established, youths essentially had full permission to do so.

To the distress of many, men had grown increasingly casual about the end of straw hat season. On September 14, 1910, with less than 24 hours remaining until straw hats would become taboo, young people flooded the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, demanding strict adherence to the fashion rules. The timely arrival of police prevented the demonstrations from getting out of hand.

By 1922, no amount of law enforcement could contain the growing resentment. The United States had just come out of World War I, fighting to make the world safe for democracy. Having defeated oppression overseas, there was no way anyone could tolerate such utter disregard for basic human decency. Something had to be done.

On September 13, hoards of teenage boys took to the streets of Manhattan. Although two days remained before straw hats would become taboo, they decided the flaunters of unfashionable practices could not be given any further license. The boys targeted factory workers as they were heading home, grabbing their straw hats and destroying them.

Thus emboldened, the boys advanced upon dock workers. This time, the teens encountered a force that was prepared to fight back. As dock workers defended themselves, the boys escalated by arming themselves with nail-riddled boards. A riot erupted, bringing traffic on the Manhattan Bridge to a standstill.

Police arrived at the scene, but some of them ended up getting caught up in the fighting as rioters snatched police hats and made short order of them.

Authorities eventually succeeded in calming things down, but the respite was temporary. The next day the riots started again. A mob of nearly 1,000 people sent Amsterdam Avenue into hat-snatching disarray.

The September 14, 1922 edition of the New York Tribune, reporting the incident, saying:

Gangs patrolled Lexington, Park and Third avenues between 103d and 125th streets so zealously that few straw hats escaped. The police of the East 104th Street station were inclined to regard their activities lightly in spite of numerous complaints at the police station, until detectives and patrolmen in plain clothes began to fall victims to the hat crashers.

Patrolmen King and Labour came in hatless and indignant with seven boys, all less than fifteen years old, who, they said, were members of a gang that had knocked off their hats and trampled them. Lieutenant Lennahan invited the boys’ fathers to come to the station to spank them and the invitation was cordially accepted.

A New York magistrate, by the ironic name of Peter A. Hatting, issued a statement that men were free to wear straw hats at any time of the year. This was insufficient to stop the conflict. In the sweltering heat of September 14, the Lower East Side of New York City erupted into uncontrolled chaos. Only as the sun rose on the morning of September 15 did an uneasy peace settle on the city. Whether out of caution or recognition of the official end of straw hat season, men put away their straw hats for the next six months. The Straw Hat Riot of 1922 came to an end.

The peace was an uneasy one. Over the next few years, the approach of September 15 was often marked with an uptick in violence. Several people were hospitalized in the outbreaks. In 1925, it got so bad that one man was murdered for the offense of wearing a straw hat out of season.

Ultimately, it was only when the straw hat fell out of fashion that the violence associated with it came to an end. Many have questioned why hats fell out of favor. It could be that they just weren’t worth the trouble.

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