A ‘hat smashing saturnalia’

Katrina Gulliver

On September 15, 1922, Harry Old-baum was walking near 116th St and Lexi-ngton Avenue in Manh-attan. He was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of teens who grabbed at him and stole his hat. Old-baum was in good enough shape to give chase and apprehend one of his atta-ckers, and haul the perpetrator to a nearby police station. Morris Sikeowitz, 16, was charged with disorderly conduct. It sounds like a minor street incident in a big city, but Oldbaum was just one of many victims that night.
In New York at the time, there were social rules about when to wear straw hats (and at a time when almost all men wore hats, such rules were more visible than today). Much like wearing white after Labor Day, sporting a boater after the end of the summer was seen as inappropriate—at least by people of means. The end-day for straw hat season had originally been September 22, but by the 1920s crept forward to September 15.
However, unlike other fashion solecisms, this one suddenly came with physical enforcement.
ran the headline in the New York Times of September 16, 1922.
“Gangs of Young Hoodlums With Spiked Sticks Terrorize Whole Blocks.”
According to the report, gangs of young men set about smashing straw hats in the street, having snatched the hats from their wearers. At one point a mob of 1000 had to be dispersed on Amsterdam Ave. Police had to put down incidents across the city.
Along Christopher Street, “the attackers lined up along the surface car tracks and yanked straw hats off the heads of passengers as the cars passed.”
At least one victim required hospital treatment. He fought back against hat grabbers and was beaten and kicked.
This was not the first instance of straw hat melees, and those participating had planned ahead (and indeed jumped the gun on the “official” end of summer). The papers reported attacks starting on September 13, when the (appropriately named) magistrate Peter Hatting convicted 7 and fined them $5 each for their part in a “hat smashing saturnalia” at Bowery and East Houston that night. It clearly wasn’t spontaneous (at least for all participants), as some had come prepared with spiked sticks to hook hats off people’s heads.
In another report, the night of the 14th saw “hundreds of boys in Grand, Mulberry and adjacent streets, armed with long sticks to which were fixed long wires, hid in doorways and unhatted all who passed sporting straws.” The reporter noted these hats were accumulated as trophies, jammed onto the handles of the sticks, some of the more “successful” attackers carrying 25 or 30. One hat-smashing group made the tactical error of going after a group of longshoremen, who were not soft targets; police broke up the brawl.
There had been earlier instances of straw hat riots, as in Pittsburgh in 1910. A newspaper there stated that “It is all right for stock brokers on the exchanges to destroy one another’s hats if they like, on the principle that everything goes among friends,” but presumably not all right for random hoodlums to play the game themselves. Apparently smashing up a chap’s straw hat if he wore it too late in the season was a custom with stockbrokers and white-shoe lawyers. As intra-group pranking, it would seem to fit squarely in the category of college hijinks and other WASP male shenanigans.
However, the teenagers who started attacking boa-ter-wearing citizens in the street in 1922 were very m-uch not of that social group. The names of the arrested teens display New York’s immigrant diversity, and few whose names would be in an Episcopal parish register. It seems these teens were working class, attacking men who outranked them in age and social standing, but not necessarily of society’s elites. Some of the victims on the lower East Side were buttonhole makers and machine operators leaving work.
Interestingly, the claims from the victims don’t state any element of robbery. The hat snatching was the main goal. But hats themselves were expensive, as one of the magistrates involved noted. The working men under attack probably didn’t consider the loss of a hat trivial, as swells at the Yale Club might. They were poor targets if the hat riot was an attempt at class uprising. (Meanwhile, hat shops stayed open late during the fracas to allow potential victims to buy something more autumnal).
Some police might not have rated the incidents of high importance, until pa-trolmen became victims th-emselves. “The police of the East 104th Street station were inclined to regard the-ir 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.” It would have been easy to see a hat theft as some kind of general roughhousing, until one was in the crowd and under attack.
The undercurrent of malice is clear from the sticks prepared with a nail sticking out. Supposedly such a stick would be all the better to knock the hats off passers-by, but it doesn’t take particularly deep analysis to say that this was a weapon.
As the arrests continued, the New York Tribune told of an impatient desk lieutenant who came up with his own solution. The parents of some arrested boys (all under 15) were summoned to the station to spank their misbehaving sons. Many of the mob were very young indeed: one ten-year-old suffered a broken leg, having run into the path of a car.
The age of many participants explains the light sentences received by those brought in front of a judge, and also the challenge for police in how to respond. New York’s penal code of 1909 made children aged 7-16 who committed an act that would have been a crime for an adult, instead guilty of “juvenile delinquency.”
The first decades of the twentieth century saw the creation and spread of children’s courts aimed at diverting law-breaking children early (rather than labeling them as criminals). Juvenile reform institutions were created, to avoid putting children into prisons with adult convicts.
This system, depending on one’s political sympathies, either coddles budding felons, or brutalizes children who are victims of their environment. The pendulum on how to respond to underage criminality continues to swing. Perhaps confident that they would face little or no punishment, attacking hats became a trend (which like other teenage fads, also disappeared).
The hat riot boys represented something new in another way. The decades prior to 1922 had also seen social reformers try to eradicate child labor, long a key part of New York’s industrial economy. The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire had spurred legislators to action. Bills were passed at a state (and less successfully, federal) level, to protect children under 14 from working. Although not always followed, these laws represented a societal sea change: the hat wreckers were the first generation of New York children it was illegal to employ. They were at the forefront of a new sociological group: the teenager.
September 1922 was warm, with temperatures in New York City well into the 80s on the 14th and 15th. An Indian Summer tends to contribute to crime—and to some men, preferring to continue wearing their straw hats and seersucker rather than layer on wool and a felt topper.
But what prompted these boys to riot over hats? To go vigilante in the enforcement of a social code none of them were likely to live by? The arbitrary hat rule created an out-group, a category of “approved” victims for bored teens to attack.
Most scholarship on riots discusses a flashpoint, or simmering grievance, as the motivation. In the hat riots, it is hard to parse a real motive. An early study on boys in gangs (published a decade before the hat riots), offers some insights. J. Adams Puffer described a typical gang practice of “plaguing people.” This meant singling out individuals to harass and attack, with victims often selected by societal prejudice (race being an obvious example).
Such gang behavior towards designated targets occurs regularly to this day, whether directed at neighborhood outgroups or randomly, in the appalling “knockout game.” But these activities don’t involve large crowds. The huge numbers allegedly involved in the hat attacks made it more characteristic of an urban riot.
This makes the hat riots something of an anomaly. If the men attacked had shared a racial identity, different from their attackers, then the assaults would have fit a clearer pattern (and chimed with episodes of racial violence taking place that year). Conversely, if the hat snatching had been part of a riot triggered by a wider sense of outrage, it would have involved a range of participants beyond just teenage boys.
At a century’s distance, the hat riots seem bizarre or faintly amusing. But they demonstrate the power of group dynamics, and how even the strangest thing can become a trigger for violence.
New York largely forgot the hat riots: even as occasional hat stompings happened in September over successive years, none rose to the level of 1922. Eventually, men stopped wearing hats; fashion stopped having rules. But if we see hat smashing as a viral “meme,” first practiced among the elites, then copied in a frenzy as it filtered out among working-class teens, the phenomenon is still going on today.