9. The Fourteenth Century Also Saw England’s Biggest Peasant Uprising
Across the English Channel, the fourteenth century also saw serious peasant unrest: The English Peasants’ Revolt. This was a major uprising across much of England that rocked the kingdom in 1381. The revolt’s roots traced back to mid-century, in the aftermath of the Black Death which killed a third to a half of England’s population. The depopulation led to a severe labor shortage. That enabled surviving workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions, especially from landowners desperate to have their fields tilled.
Landowners and employers responded by getting the government to enact the Statute of Laborers in 1351, fixing wages at pre Black Death rates. That led to steadily mounting discontent amongst peasants and the laboring classes. The popular discontent came to a boil in 1381, with the enactment of an unpopular poll tax. That May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex met violent resistance. The resistance and unrest spread, catching the government of the then-fourteen-year-old King Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed. Rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited rough justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands.
8. Angry Peasants Seized the Tower of London and Chopped Off the Heads of Unpopular Officials
Disparate peasant bands demanded an end to serfdom, a lowering of taxes, and the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, as they coalesced and marched on London. On June 13, 1381, a Kentish contingent encouraged by a priest named John Ball and led by a man named Wat Tyler entered the city. Once in London, they massacred Flemish merchants, destroyed the palace of an unpopular uncle of the king, and seized the Tower of London. The king’s chancellor and his treasurer, widely blamed for the hated poll tax, were captured and beheaded.
The teenage King Richard II agreed to meet the Peasant Rebellion’s leader, Wat Tyler, on the outskirts of London. However, Tyler was treacherously killed at the meeting. To quiet the unrest, the young king then claimed that he would be the rebels’ leader, and promising reforms and agreeing to their demands, convinced them to disperse. They soon had cause to regret their dispersal. As soon as sufficient military force was available, the king reneged on his promises, and the peasants were brutally suppressed. When a peasant delegation reminded Richard II of his promises, he contemptuously dismissed them, sneering “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain!”
7. Back in the Days, Fashion Was Literally Policed and Was Cause For Unrest
Fashion rules nowadays are not taken as seriously as they were in centuries past. Take medieval Europe, where fashion rules were enshrined in highly restrictive sumptuary laws. “Fashion police” back then was not a figure of speech, and breaking fashion rules was an actual crime. For example, England enacted sumptuary laws during the reign of King Edward III, which dictated what colors, types of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims, people of various ranks and incomes were allowed to wear. Violators were subject to criminal and civil penalties.
The goal was to reinforce social hierarchies and prevent people from “dressing above their station“. Fashion rules were specifically targeted at commoners, especially the emerging class of rich commoner merchants and businessmen who were as wealthy and sometimes wealthier than nobles. Governments eventually stopped policing fashion, and left that to public opinion. Public opinion being what it is, the result was unrest. At times, fashion rules were enforced by violent mobs, like the time when riots erupted in American cities over the choice of hats.
6. Yanking Hats Off Peoples’ Heads Used to be Quite Popular
The wearing of straw hats by men became popular in nineteenth-century America. The light and permeable headgear was typically worn during summer, often at sports outings. Most popular was the straw boater, originally worn at boating events. The era’s fashion police initially frowned upon the use of straw hats. However, they gradually won acceptance, and by the late nineteenth century, straw hats were standard summertime male headgear. There was a caveat, though: an unwritten rule developed, decreeing that straw hats were strictly summertime wear.
September 1st emerged as an arbitrary end date for straw hat season. It was later extended to September 15th, which came to be known as “Felt Hat Day“. A tradition emerged, whereby those wearing straw hats past the cutoff date had them snatched off their heads and destroyed by friends and acquaintances. It was all good fun at first. Then it morphed into widespread crime, when strangers began taking the liberty of snatching straw hats off the heads of people they did not know. That led to violence, unrest, and eventually, widespread rioting.
Today, the rules of fashion are not taken anywhere nearly as seriously as they were in the past. Indeed, modern fashion rules are so slack that even sweatpants and hoodies can be treated as acceptable boardroom attire. Things were different in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when fashion – especially headgear fashion – was serious business. Rigorous rules against men wearing straw hats after September 15th meant that those who defied that bit of convention ran afoul of the fashion police – or more accurately, the fashion mob.
A man wearing a straw hat after September 15th was fair game for anybody on the street who wanted to snatch it off his dome and stomp it to smithereens. Many went along, good-naturedly. Some, however, treated having their private property seized and destroyed by strangers more seriously; it was a crime. Resistance did not end the practice, though. It only led the fashion police to gather in mobs for mutual protection – or mutual bullying – and get more violent.
One of the earliest recorded instances of widespread criminal unrest, violence, and rioting at the end of straw hat season occurred in Pittsburgh in the early twentieth century. On September 15th, 1910, Felt Hat Day demonstrations were organized. Mobs descended upon the straw-lidded to snatch away and destroy their headgear. Some resisted the destruction of their straw hats and stood up for their right to wear whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, only to get beat up and nearly destroyed themselves by the demonstrators.
As crime and violence spread, some straw hat wearers used firearms to protect their headgear. Elsewhere in the city, some had their straw hats taken off their heads at gunpoint. Eventually, police were mobilized to disperse the rioters, and serious bloodshed and loss of life were narrowly avoided. The following day, many newspapers wrote it off as “youthful exuberance“. As the scale of the September 15th rioting grew in subsequent years, however, the public’s and the media’s patience with such exuberance grew thin.
3. Youth Gangs Led the Straw Hats Unrest By Appointing Themselves Fashion Police
Violent youth gangs causing unrest by roaming city streets and assaulting hapless passersby have probably been around since cities first came into existence. However, it has probably been a long time since such youthful gang violence was driven by an intense dislike of the victims’ fashion choices. Once America’s youth got it into their heads that, come every September 15th, they were entitled to yank straw hats off of people’s heads and destroy them, it was tough to put that genie back in the bottle.
As many newspapers reporting on Pittsburgh’s 1910 straw hat disturbances noted, things were bound to get worse. They were right. Bad as Pittsburgh’s 1910 straw hat unrest and rioting had been, it was eclipsed by New York’s 1922 Straw Hat Riot, which put that of the Steel City to shame. It began in Manhattan’s Mulberry Bend, when some urchins decided to ignore the September 15th cutoff. Instead, they decided to get a head start on their annual crime spree, and began snatching and destroying straw hats on September 13th.
2. The Big Apple’s Straw Hats Unrest Put Pittsburgh to Shame
New York City kicked off the Straw Hat Riot by targeting some dockworkers. The dockworkers did not see the humor in it, got mad, and fought back. Things escalated, and that night, widespread mayhem and crime engulfed Manhattan. After getting their asses handed to them by the dockworkers, the kids regrouped in ever-larger and increasingly more violent gangs. Soon, mobs of out-of-control youth were snatching hats off heads, attacking people en masse, and beating up any who resisted.
The Big Apple’s 1922 Straw Hat Riot went on for days. The initial unrest and mayhem on the night of September 13th grew so widespread and got so bad that it halted traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Police reinforcements were rushed in to end the rioting, but the relief was only temporary. The following night, the crime spree intensified when youth gangs returned to roaming Manhattan’s streets, some of them armed with nail-studded clubs. Straw hat wearers who crossed their path were lucky to get away with just losing their hats. The unlucky ones lost their hats and got beaten to a pulp.
1. An NYPD Lieutenant Made Parents Spank Their Delinquent Kids in the Precinct as a Condition For Releasing Them
Police were helpless, and the rioting went on for days, spreading from the East Side to the rest of Manhattan. The Upper West Side became particularly dangerous for the straw-lidded, as witnesses reported a mob of more than 1000 snatching straw hats on Amsterdam Avenue. The city’s days-long 1922 Straw Hat Riot was accompanied by many injuries and many arrests. However, since many culprits were underage, they did not stay behind bars for long, before they were released to their parents.
In the East 104th Street Precinct, the police lieutenant in charge insisted that the parents spank their kids then and there, as a condition for their release. The straw hat-smashing tradition continued. Although there was no recurrence of widespread rioting on the scale of 1922’s mayhem, the end of straw hat season continued to be attended by unrest and violence. In 1924, for example, one man was murdered for wearing a straw hat after September 15th. The violent tradition finally came to an end when straw hats went out of fashion during the Great Depression.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading