Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History

Khalid Elhassan - January 13, 2021

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval fashions. Mediovo Italiano

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Medieval fashions. Fashion and Design

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
President Calvin Coolidge at a baseball park in a straw hat. Medium

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Straw boaters. Getty Images

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Straw hats used to be super popular. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

5. The ‘Fashion Mobs’ escalate to public bullying

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.

Related: Our Fashion Choices Today Would Have Been Extremely Questionable in History.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Nineteenth century New York City thugs. American Yawp

4. The Steel City Pioneered Straw Hat Riots

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
A New York City policeman with some children in 1908. Internet Archive Book Images

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
New Yorkers in straw hats in 1912. Library of Congress

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Article on the Straw Hat Riots. New York Tribune

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.

Riots and Civil Unrest that Shook History
Headline about the Straw Hat Riots. New York Times

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Alexander, John T. – Autocratic Politics in a National Crisis: The Imperial Russian Government and Pugachev’s Revolt, 1773-1775 (1969)

Bainton, Roland H. ­- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1978)

Blickle, Peter – The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants War From a New Perspective (1981)

Cliff, Nigel – The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America (2007)

Cracked – The 5 Most Embarrassing Things Angry Mobs Have Rioted Over

Davis, Susan G., American Quarterly, Volume 34.2 (Summer 1982) – Making the Night Hideous: Christmas Revelry and Public Order in Nineteenth Century Philadelphia

Digital History – Holidays and the Invention of Tradition

Dunn, Alastair – The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution (2002)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Hussite Wars

Encyclopedia Britannica – Jacquerie

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sumptuary Law

New York Times, September 16th, 1922 – City Has Wild Night of Straw Hat Riots

New York Tribune, September 16th, 1922 – Straw Hat Smashing Orgy Bares Heads From Battery to Bronx

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Cade, John [Jack] (died 1450), Rebel Leader

Pittsburgh Press, September 16th, 1910 – Straw Hat Riot

Runciman, Steven – The Sicilian Vespers (1958)

Slate – The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History

Vallance, Edward – A Radical History of Britain (2009)

Wikipedia – Astor Place Riot

Wikipedia – Jack Cade’s Rebellion

Wikipedia – Straw Hat Riot

Zagorin, Perez – Rebels and Rulers, 1500-1660 ­(1984)

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