The Straw Hat Riot: What Made New Yorkers Blow Their Lids?

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Back in 1922, the Straw Hat Riot had New Yorkers going berserk over men wearing straw hats. Why? They wore them past the unofficial date that was deemed socially acceptable.

It only started as a few minor riots but soon the phenomenon spread. Lasting eight days, the riot led to many arrests and several injuries.

Straw hats as a fashion statement

In the 19th century straw hats were all the rage and extremely popular summertime attire. They initially were only worn during summer sporting events like boating, so much so that there’s even a style of straw called a boater.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that straw hats became acceptable to wear in cities. At the height of summer, you could even catch them adorning the heads of businessmen.

However there was always an unwritten rule among men that absolutely no one should wear a straw hat after September 15th.

Why September 15th?

Nobody really knows. The cut-off date used to be September 1st (the first day of autumn), but over time it shifted to the middle of the month.

Any man spotted wearing a straw hat after this date was at the very least subject to ridicule. It was also tradition for youths to knock straw hats off of people’s heads and stomp on them.

The tradition became so well established that newspapers of the day would often issue warnings for the impending approach of the fifteenth. At this point they recommended that men switch to felt or silk hats.

The rioting begins

The rioting began on September 13, 1922, a full two days before the unspoken date. A group of young men decided to get an early jump on hat stomping by first going to the “Mulberry Bend” area of Manhattan.

They removed and stomped on the hats of factory workers, then moved on to a group of dock workers wearing straw hats.

The dock workers, however, fought back and a brawl ensued. It got so out of hand that it stopped traffic on the Manhattan Bridge.

Police eventually broke up the scuffle, arresting several people.

Even though the first brawl was stopped, the hat stomping movement spread like wildfire among the youth of the city.

Gangs of teenagers carrying large sticks (some with nails driven through them) patrolled the streets, looking for straw hat wearers and beating the ones that resisted.

One man in particular claimed that his hat was taken by an unruly mob of about 1,000 young men, snatching up hats along Amsterdam Avenue.

Several people were hospitalized after receiving savage beatings from rioters. Police, slow to intervene, eventually managed to break up the mob by arresting many of its members.

Arrested youths were brought in front of a judge one-by-one, most of whom opted to pay fines instead of serving jail time.

Hat smashing dies off

The hat smashing tradition continued for several years after 1922, however the Straw Hat Riot marked the most severe occurrence.

In 1924 one man was even murdered for wearing a straw hat. In 1925 several more arrests were made in response to hat smashing.

Over time the phenomenon eventually faded and disappeared. Why? The straw boater hats were replaced by the more fashionable panama hats in the 1930’s.

While straw hats were very popular for over 30 years from the 1890’s to the late 1920’s, less and less men wore them. They seemed dated, and after the Wall Street crash of 1929, became a symbol of the irresponsible 1920’s.

By the 1950’s the classic straw hat of yesteryear went virtually extinct outside of ceremonial or uniform use.

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