School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.
Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.
That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.
By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.
As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.
The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.
What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.
Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.
But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.
Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.