Saturday, November 4, 2017

Is That a Susquehanna Hat?

Abbott and Costello's famous "Susquehanna Hat" routine, in which people react hysterically to the sight of a straw hat and cannot find relief until they mangle the hat with their trembling hands and crush it beneath their feet.  I learned from Peter Reitan, author of the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, that a similar form of hat madness had once run rampant in the real world.  It started on September 21, 1870, when the New York Stock Exchange issued the following notice:
Notice. – All white hats found in the Board Room after the 25th of September will be considered contraband of war, and will be treated accordingly.

Signed by the Sub-Committee
Sept. 21, 1870.
Principal among light-colored headgear banned by this order was the straw hat.  Straw hats, which were lightweight and reflected sunlight, were regarded as appropriate headwear for the bright days of summer.  But, once summer ended, men were generally expected to put their straw hats into storage.

It wasn't enough for the enforcers of the hat ban to civilly confiscate hats from the rule breakers.  A man who refused to abandon his straw hat for the cooler autumn weather was regarded by fashion adherents as a social misfit who must be forcibly brought into line with everyone else.  The enforcers were, as the notice clearly warned, prepared to go to war.  They would either swing a cane to knock the improper hat off a man's head or they would dislodge the headgear with a strongly pitched apple or pear.  Once the hat hit the floor, they would stomp on it, making sure it was crushed beyond repair.

Author and historian James D. McCabe wrote in 1881:
The life of a stock broker is one of constant excitement.  Stocks go up and down so rapidly, so many changes occur, that he must be continually on the alert, watching the market eagerly, to take advantage of a lucky rise, or to guard against the mishaps of an unexpected decline. It is a wearying, wearing existence, and it is no wonder that in their amusements the brokers should be rather boisterous, or that they should seek to enliven the sometimes dull proceedings of the Boards with a bit of fun.  The 15th of September is known as "White Hat Day," and is rigidly observed at the Exchange.  Woe to the unfortunate broker who ventures to put in an appearance on that day with a straw or summer hat.  It is ruthlessly knocked from his head, and the next moment the members are busy playing football with it.
The New York Herald reported in 1870:
Resistance to the flanking movements were found to be useless, and when the battle closed late in the day not a white hat was to be seen on all the field, and high above the plaints of the wounded who had parted with their summer head tops against their will, rose the shouts of victory. . .
Buffalo Daily Dispatch and Evening Post noted in 1877:

Some Tall Fun on the New York Stock Exchange.
Late in the afternoon at least one-third of the brokers doing business on the floor were bareheaded, and dozens of crushed white hats were whirling in the air or ornamenting the gas brackets.  Straw hats were treated even in a worse manner.  They were torn apart in many instances, and the floor was strewn with the fragments.  A favorite trick was to approach an unconscious, bareheaded broker from behind and pull a dilapidated white tile down over his face and ears.
A New Zealand newspaper, The Ashburton Guardian, published an informative account of White Hat Day on November 20, 1882.

This became an annual tradition that spread to other jurisdictions.  Reitan wrote:
Within a decade and a half of the first "White Hat Day," its widespread notoriety spawned nearly universal adoption of the practice across the United States.  Hat dealers, who had long understood seasonal advertising, latched onto the new trend to boost sales.  Newspaper editors looking to profit from that advertising encouraged the practice, firmly entrenching the practice in American pop-culture.
In Pittsburgh, young vandals took to the streets to enforce the policy.  The following newspaper excerpts were provided in Reitan's account.

The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), September 16, 1909, page 1:
That policemen did not make proper efforts to quell the riot and in some instances refused to interfere to protect straw hats and their owners was the assertion made to the mayor by the committee.

The Pittsburgh Press, September 22, 1910, page 1:
Magistrates Coward and Briggs failed to see the humor of smashing straw hats, when thirty-five boys and young men were brought before them yesterday morning on charges of destroying summer headgear of pedestrians along Broad street between Snyder and Washington avenues on the previous evening.
. . .
"A man is entitled to wear a straw hat up until Christmas if he feels so inclined," declared Magistrate Briggs.  "I tried to find out who originated the straw hat smashing idea, but there is nothing in the encyclopedia about it."

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