The Straw Hat Riot of 1922
Society-wide dress codes have gone the way of the dodo, but in the past, they were more rigorously followed by those with a means to do so. We probably remember the rule about not wearing white after Labor Day, but did you know that men were expected to switch from straw hats to felt hats traditionally on the 15th of September? The day was often called “felt hat day,” and if men dared to carry on with wearing their straw hats, they’d likely have someone steal it off of their heads and stomp it to pieces in front of them. What seems to have started as a funny tradition between friends somehow morphed into a dangerous and violent brawl between teenage hooligans and men who chose to wear their straw hats up to the deadline and beyond.
A modern society may find it hard to understand how something like straw hats evoked any sort of extreme response from a vast swath of any group of people, but a hundred years ago, they did. It was a different era with different style standards and traditions, of course, one of those being the general fact that many, many men wore hats as part of their daily outfits. What kind of hat people wore was somewhat defined by their jobs and the season, just like today.
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The popular straw hats of 1922 were the flat brimmed “boaters” or “sailors” that we most commonly associate with barbershop quartets. Some men wore “Panama” hats, and although the distinction between what makes a boater different than a Panama is fuzzy, it seems the Panama style hats diverged from having a flat brim. These straw hats could range in price based on quality, but were commonly offered for sale as low as $1.50 up to $10 and higher. Given that the 1922 value of a dollar was the equivalent to $17.64 today, and that the average worker made much less than $1.00 per hour, a hat could be quite the valuable object.
September 15 was the unofficial day that wearing straw hats was deemed socially unacceptable and the tradition of smashing those straw hats on or after the 15th of September developed a sort of carnival atmosphere, wherein permission to be a little prankish became its own tradition. With a society of strict social mores, it isn’t hard to imagine why teenage boys might find delight in smashing the hats of grown men. It was permissible, although still quite impolite when done by an unknown assailant. For whatever reason, the boys began their siege on straw hats two days early in New York City in 1922.
Starting on the evening of 13 September 1922, a large group of boys on the East Side began snatching and smashing hats. The men did not take kindly to this, and they began to fight back. Perhaps because they were two days early or perhaps because they were being especially rude about it, but nonetheless, the police were swamped with controlling the violence that broke out on Bowery and East Houston. It had gone so far that bonfires had been lit to burn the hats. The night court, very punnily presided over by Magistrate Peter Hatting, made a declaration that their behavior was indeed criminal and considered assault. He is quoted as saying, “It is against the law to smash a man’s hat, and he has a right to wear it in a January snowstorm if he wishes.” While many boys were collared that night, seven boys were arrested and fined $5 each by Hatting. The promise of jail was issued to any additional thuggish behavior having to do with straw hats. The event marked the beginning of the “Straw Hat Riot.”
The boys were not deterred. The smashery resumed the next night. Estimates of a thousand teenaged participants were involved in further hat-snatching and brawling. Some accounts say they carried sticks with protruding nails as a “snatching” tool. Of course, the word was out in the newspapers and among those who had seen or heard about the hijinks of the previous night’s riots. So, one could only wonder why the boys were still being met with enough straw hat wearing men to continue the rioting into a second AND third day. We might conclude that some of the adults were joining in on the amped-up pranking energy of the approaching “felt hat day” by daring the young hooligans with a nice boater or panama to smash. One newspaper implicated milliners as possibly being in on a scheme to boost hat sales since they stayed open late to accommodate those who needed a new replacement hat.
The “riots” on the night of 15 September 1922 were reported by papers as the final melee of brawling and hat smashing with enough boater remnants in the streets to require special street cleaning efforts. Up and down Broadway, gangs of boys had thronged along the streets, going after each and every straw hat until none were left to see the morning. The word “orgy” was used to describe the goings-on in more than one paper. Was it fun or was it dangerous or was it both, somehow?
The casualty reports indicated that no one was killed, but there were several injuries. A handful of boys were put into jail, serving no more than three days. Another group of boys who made the error of attacking two police officers, were taken to the precinct, and their fathers were invited to come spank them. The fathers reportedly “cordially accepted.”
After the 1922 Straw Hat Riot, there was more hat-smashing in the following years, but nothing on the scale of what occurred that year. Soon enough, the unwritten social mandate was abandoned as unimportant, boaters went out of style, and the pranks, thankfully, retreated back to Halloween.
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A valuable resource for New York genealogy is its one hundred years of state census history, which provides key family details in between federal census years. Beginning in 1825, the New York State Constitution required that a census be taken every ten years; for the first fifty years it was, although a fire at the state capitol in 1911 destroyed the state copies of the first three enumerations. Politics impeded the 1885 census, which was taken instead in 1892 and resulted in the 1895 enumeration being skipped. For a brief thirty-year span between 1905 and 1925 the census was again taken before finally being abolished in 1931.
1825, 1835 and 1845
Although the state copies of the census were destroyed, a limited number of counties retained their copies of the census which have not been digitized and are only available at county repositories and on microfilm at the New York State Library, which has published a microfilm guide showing the availability of each census for every county.
1855, 1865 and 1875
One of the most valuable research tools in the enumerations between 1855 and 1875 is that these schedules named the relationship of each household member to its head. This did not occur on the federal census until 1880! For New York families of this time period, relationships can be more easily documented with direct genealogical evidence. Additionally, for those enumerated who were born in New York, the county of birth was recorded, making migration and birthplace identification easier to track.
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1905, 1915 and 1925
The final three state census enumerations did ask more questions than the 1892, but less than the earlier available years. Both 1915 and 1925 had the same questions, and do have the distinction of being the only two which are complete, meaning that all sixty two counties are covered and have records available. A guide to the questions asked on each census can provide you with a list of the information you can look forward to discovering in this collection. Be sure to study the original images for your family members carefully as interesting questions were asked, and your ancestors’ answers may surprise you!
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Justin Peters, Slate (https://slate.com : accessed 13 September 2022), “The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History.”
Greg Young, The Bowery Boys (https://www.boweryboyshistory.com : accessed 14 September 2022), “The Straw Hat Riots of 1922: The bad kind of New York fashion week.”
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACrowd_awaits_news_of_Dempsey_-_Carpentier.JPG : accessed 14 September 2022), digital image The Times digital archive, “Crowd awaits news of Dempsey - Carpentier.JPG;” image uploaded by user Mr. Gustafson.
“Straw Hat Smashing Orgy Bares Heads From Battery to Bronx” New York Tribune (New York, New York), 16 September 1922, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 13 September 2022), citing print edition, p. 3, col. 2-3.
“Straw Hat Raids Enliven City” Times Union (Brooklyn, New York), 16 September 1922, digital image, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 14 September 2022), citing print edition, p. 5, col. 7-8.
“Straw Hat Riots in Gotham Usher in Felt Styles” The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), 16 September 1922, digital image, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 13 September 2022), citing print edition, p. 2, col. 7.
“Straw Hat Riots Embroil East Side” The New York Times (New York, New York), 14 September 1922, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 13 September 2022), citing print edition, p. 23, col. 7.
New York State Library (http://nysl.nysed.gov : accessed 14 September 2022), “New York State Census Microfilm at New York State Library.”
New York State Library (http://nysl.nysed.gov : accessed 14 September 2022), “Questions from each New York State Census.”
FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "New York State Census Censuses," rev. 08:08, 24 May 2019.
New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (http://newyorkfamilyhistory.org : accessed 14 September 2022), “New York State Census Records Online.”
1850 U.S. census, Montgomery County, New York, population schedule, Minden, p. 238B (stamped), dwelling 436, family 470, John I. Wendle household, database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 10 September 2022), citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 533.
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