Atop over six feet of President Lincoln’s thin body sat what is perhaps his most recognizable feature: a top hat. Besides his other obvious contributions to America’s history, Lincoln also started a major fashion trend. While most top hats of the time were about seven inches tall, Lincoln urged his higher and higher, sometimes wearing one that gave him an extra thirteen inches, giving his version of the original the name “stovepipe hat.” The extra space was not just fashionable, it was also practical; Lincoln kept important letters and documents tucked up between the crown and the headband (Zaslow, Jeffrey). He was even wearing one at Ford’s Theater on the night of his assassination. This infamous night may not have been the first attempt on Lincoln’s life while he donned his signature headgear. It is reported that in August 1864 a sniper shot at Lincoln as he was riding up the drive at The Soldier’s Home. He is said to have cavalierly reported the incident as a fluke and company men found his hat on the ground the next day, with a bullet hole through it (Norton, R.J.).
Although he may have popularized the style, he did not invent it. That credit goes to John Hetherington, a hat-maker from London who designed the style in 1797. When Hetherington debuted his prototype by wearing it out on the streets it caused such a commotion that he was arrested and fined for causing a disturbance. A subsequent law was made in London banning them after the police chief reported, “people booed, several women fainted and a small boy got his arm broken” in the riot incited by Hetherington(Scrivens, Louise). The law was eventually abandoned and the top hat enjoyed a surge of popularity.
Originally, these hats were covered with fur. Beaver fur was more common among the higher social classes, while the middle-class version used rabbit fur. Covering the fur with oilcloth created a smoother look and eventually hat-makers used silk to create the style that we recognize today. This silky style developed by Hetherington was slow to catch on until Prince Albert adopted them, making them a fashion staple in Europe and The United States(Curiosities). As an unexpected result of the trend, the beaver-trapping trade in America greatly declined(Feinstein, Kelly).
In the 19th century these hats reached the peak of their popularity. Their endorsement from admired political figures made them a status symbol among the upper class and especially those involved in politics. However, their popularity died out due to the high costs of making the specialized product. Eventually they became a sort of caricature. Uncle Sam wears one and it has been depicted satirically as a symbol for capitalism. Throughout recent memory, the top hat has retained its historical ties to nobility and class. It is still worn at some formal functions or as part of some official uniforms. There was brief resurgence of popularity for the style when in the 1920’s and 30’s it was associated with the pop culture of the time, prompting Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to title one of their most popular productions, “Top Hat.”
Despite the changing attitudes of what the hat represents, Lincoln’s stovepipe will always serve as an iconic image and the hat he was wearing on the night of his death can be viewed today at the Smithsonian. The tattered and worn relic is still encircled with the black band that Lincoln used to tribute his dead son(Harding, Allison). There are also two finger-sized holes in the brim, where Lincoln always touched when taking his hat on or off (BBC).
The style could even be experiencing a revival in the wake of the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth. The stovepipe hat is a vastly recognizable symbol for the president, and many are using it in different forms of tribute. As part of the 21st Century Abe Project, hat distributor; Quintin produced a modern-day spin on the original. The reproduction is modeled after today’s baseball hat but “includes a wool outer, and satin lining with a letter written to Gideon Welles by Lincoln”(Quintin,com). In Illinois, the town of Springfield honored Lincoln with a community-wide art project featuring fiberglass recreations of Lincoln’s hat, all several feet tall and painted with historic images(Reynolds, John).
For Whitman, a man in a top hat would have been a fairly common experience, but he identifies it with President Lincoln as in Specimen Days when he recalls, “Mr. Lincoln in the saddle…wears a black stiff hat and looks about as ordinary in attire at the commonest man”(p.733). The stoic effect of the hat has served as a symbol for success and power since its arrival on the market. No doubt it only amplified President Lincoln’s dignified grace, making him an even more interesting character in Whitman’s eyes. The stove pipe hat has endured a very colorful and prominent history, from inciting riots to witnessing a presidential assissination.
“Abe Stove Pipe Hat by Quintin.” Quintin. 4 May 2009. Web.
“Curiosties.” Civil War Times 43.3 (2004): 67-68. Print.
Feinstein, Kelly. “Fashionable Felted Fur: The Beaver Hat.” Thesis. History Department, UC Santa Cruz, 2006. Print.
Harding, Alison. “Smithsonian exhibit pays homage to Lincoln.” CNN.com/US. Web.
Norton, R.J. “A Shot Through Abraham Lincoln’s Hat.” Abraham Lincoln Research Site. Web.
Reynolds, John. “Stovepipe hats to go on display starting today.” The Stat Journal-Register. 28 May 2009. Web. <sj-r.com>.
Scrivens, Louise. “Changing the flaws in London’s Laws.” BBC News. Web.
Zaslow, Jeffrey. “A Hatless JFK: Inaugural Moments That Became Cultural Turning Points.” Wall Street Journal- Eastern Edition. 20 Jan. 2005. Web.
Allan Pinkerton, President Abraham Lincoln and General John A. McClernand, October 3, 1862. Photograph. National Archives. Lincolnstudies.com. Web.
Men’s Fashion. Advertisement. La Mode 19 Mar. 1852. Print.
Perlman, Seth. Abraham Lincoln’s Hat. Photograph. AP, Seattle. The Seattle Times. 18 June 2007. Web.
Abe Stovepipe Hate. Photograph. Quintin Hats. Quintin. 4 May 2009. Web. <quintinco.com>.test Filed under Uncategorized | Tags: digitalmuseum, ww02, ww20 | Comment (0)