Hats! Oh wonderful, wonderful hats. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘old hat’? It refers to something that is old fashioned or hackneyed. But, originally, the phrase referred to the human female vulva. Apologies if you just spat your tea out. As George Grose tells us in his 1785 version of A Classical History of the Vulgar Tongue: ‘Old hat, a woman’s privates, because frequently felt.’ Ah, don’t you love the olden days? Blimey. Hats were, of course, originally made of felt, so it’s unclear if Grose was telling us something truthful or simply amusing himself. The making of felt involved toxic mercury, which, with prolonged exposure, damages the nervous system, causes tremors and dementia, hence the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’. Still, I’d rather be called that than an old vulva…
Talking of old felt, there’s such a thing as ‘Felt Hat Day’. Toward the 1920s, it became a tradition in America to assault someone wearing a hat after this day. In New York in 1922, police had their hands full with the ‘straw hat riot’. What started as a series of smaller riots soon escalated into random assaults on men wearing straw hats because they were wearing them after the date it was deemed socially acceptable to do so. There were many arrests and quite a large number of people were hospitalised. Such riots became commonplace. In 1924, a man was murdered in New York because he was wearing a straw hat. Beautiful city…
But the British love a hat riot, too. John Hetherington invented the top hat and first wore his invention in public on January 15th, 1797. This led to an almighty riot. Hetherington was arrested and charged with breaching the peace and inciting a riot. Plus, he was given a £500 fine, nearly 30 grand in today’s money. The judge said of Hetherington’s hat, ‘[it was] calculated to frighten people.’ Officers of the Crown said, ‘Several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas… had his right arm broken.’ New York – hat murder. England – arm broken. Yeah, sounds about right.
And top hats are why London’s black cabs are so tall. To allow gentlemen to enter one without taking off their top hats. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?
And here’s something. Panama Hats are from Ecuador. In the olden days, Ecuador was very quiet. As for neighbouring Colombia, well, that was at the centre of a thriving South American industry. So, when Ecuadorians invented a new hat, they moved operations to Colombia and sold the hats from there. Of course, Colombia is now Panama, New Grenada is now Colombia and the country of Grenada wouldn’t exist for another 120 or so years…
Widespread hat use became a rare thing after the Second World War and nobody really knows why. It hit hat making towns hard, such as Stockport and Denton in the UK. In 1840, 24,000 hats were being made every week in Denton. By the 19th century, you were nobody if you didn’t wear a hat in Denton. If you attended a job interview hatless, you were shown the door. If you entered a shop hatless, you were sworn at. Indeed, Denton is from where we get the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’, but now, it’s all gone. It’s not entirely clear what town made ‘old hat’ famous, but I’d love to know…
I don’t wear hats. I don’t suit them. But I do enjoy a good hat. I am most certainly obsessed with their history, if not with wearing them.
But are you obsessed with hats, readers?
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