The New York Straw Hat Riot of 1922
I am fond of wearing hats and I judge a panama suitable headgear to wear when I attend a game of cricket or when I am out in a tropical part of what was formerly the British Empire. I have not worn a straw boater, though. Nevertheless I was a little alarmed to discover the fury provoked in the Big Apple by the wearing of straw hats.
Although in the late 19th century it was not considered good form to wear a straw hat in American cities even in the height of summer, by the turn of the 20th century straw boaters had become acceptable, even for business men. There were, however, some unwritten conventions to be observed. Wearing straw hats was infra-dig on or after the first of September, the first day of autumn in the States, but later the cut-off date when men were expected to change their headwear to soft, felt hats moved to the middle of the month.
Anyone seen wearing a straw hat after the cut-off date risked opening himself up to ridicule and a tradition grew up whereby youths seeing someone flouting the convention would knock his hat off and stamp on it. So established was the practice that newspapers published articles warning straw hat wearers of the imminence of the deadline. But for some reason events took a more sinister turn in 1922.
The riot actually began two days before the conventional switch over date, on 13th September, when a group of youths began removing and stamping on the hats of factory workers in the Mulberry Bend area of Manhattan in what is now Chinatown. A brawl broke out when the mob turned their attentions to the headgear of some dock workers who, unsurprisingly, fought back. The ensuing melee stopped traffic on the Manhattan Bridge and was only quelled when the police intervened and arrested some of the protagonists.
The next evening the violence escalated as gangs of teenagers roamed the streets armed with large sticks with nails driven through the top, looking for men wearing straw hats. Anyone resisting was beaten with the cudgels and several were hospitalised. One victim whose hat was snatched claimed that there were upwards of 1,000 youths roaming Amsterdam Avenue.
The New York Times reported the riot extensively with headlines screaming, “City has wild night of straw hat riots” and “gangs of young hoodlums with spiked sticks terrorise whole blocks”. The report went on, “complaints poured in upon the police from men whose hats were stolen and destroyed. But as soon as the police broke up the gangs, the hoodlums resumed their activities elsewhere….the streets where such incidents occurred were strewn with broken straw hats. Hat stores which kept open last night were crowded with purchasers of tall hats…one complaint was made of a gang swarming on an open street car and attacking the passengers to get their hats”. Even off-duty policemen had their hats stolen.
Order was eventually restored and there were many arrested and some spent a few days in chokey. The tradition of hat snatching continued for a few years – in 1924 a man was murdered for wearing a straw hat and in 1925 several arrests were made. But the straw boater went out of fashion following the Wall Street Crash, presumably because they were seen as symbols of the irresponsible twenties, and this rather aggressive form of fashion policing went the way of many a fad.