In 1922, New York City had a three-day riot about straw hats

A 1919 newspaper ad for the offending items. Image: Steve Strummer/Wikimedia Commons.

A lot of the time, even if it can’t be defended, an act of violence can be understood. “I don’t approve of how they’ve expressed it”, we might think, “but they’ve a legitimate grievance there.”

Not always, though. Sometimes, you’ll get a burst of some good old senseless violence, done by a group with no discernible principles whatsoever, just for a bit of a laugh. New York’s Straw Hat Riot is one of those times.

Our story is a strange one. In New York, at the start of the 20th century, all men had to stop wearing their straw hats by 15 September. This wasn’t a law, but it wasn’t a vague rule followed by a minority, either. It was taken absurdly seriously, and you were really, properly in for it if you ignored the deadline: examples abound of New Yorkers being pummelled for their transgressions. And one particular instance stands out about the others.  

In 1922, a few days before the straw hat season wrapped up, some kids got tired of waiting. They wanted to smash hats, and they were damned if anybody – or any unofficial “deadline” – was going to stand in their way.

On 13 September, this group threw tradition to the wind. Accounts vary, but the most common version of the tale runs as follows. They began by nicking the hats from a few factory workers, and quickly moved on to other groups. During the spree, they wound up picking on a bunch of dockworkers.  

Not a particularly smart move, it turned out: the dockworkers weren’t going down without a fight. A few scuffles started, one thing led to another and, within a few hours, a mass brawl was underway, churning through the city, destroying all hats in its path.

Straw Hat Riots Embroil East Side,” ran a New York Times headline on 14 September. It reported “scores of rowdies” on the prowl, and even mentioned “straw hat bonfires”. (It’s very, very tempting to paint this as an ideological battle: one side fighting to the death to defend straw hats; the other, to secure their destruction. But it was probably more an “any excuse” type of thing.)

After a while the police were called out, and by the end of the day they’d manage to slap seven of the troublemakers with a $5 fine. Understandably a bit rattled, officers and magistrates sent out warnings to anyone thinking about hat-snatching the following day, along with an affirmation of the rights of hat-wearers.

“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,” magistrate Peter Hatting told the Times. “To hit a man’s hat is a simple assault, and in this court it will be treated as such, and I want you to spread this word among all who would smash hats.”

You’d think that’d be it, wouldn’t you? You’d think that, given the unlikelihood of the thing in the first place, coupled with a few stern words from the grownups, the thing would be out of everybody’s system, wouldn’t you?

Worse still, the participants were now armed

It wasn’t. It really, properly wasn’t. Things ramped up and up during the next couple of days, and by 15 September the brawl was, quite simply, bloody enormous. What started as a fracas had become a full-on, city-wide riot.

The Times reported on the 16th that “in some cases, mobs of hundreds of boys and young men terrorised whole blocks.” It continued: “The hoodlums would hide in doorways and dash out, ten or twelve strong, to attack one or two men.”

Worse still, the participants were now armed. Many of the “hat-hunting hoodlums... were armed with sticks, at the ends of which nails projected at right angles”, reported the New York Tribune. The aim here was to use the nail to lift hats from people’s heads, and then whack them if they resisted.

Another common method of hat-snatching was for the groups to line up along roads and then lift them from unsuspecting passengers in open-top cars. As the Times report on such an instance explains:

A man who said he was E.C. Jones, a promoter of 70 West 93rd Street, telephoned to the Times that this happened when he was riding uptown on an Amsterdam avenue car… at about 9 o'clock last night. He said the car was attacked by a group of boys who later disappeared in a mob of about 1,000.”

Policemen who got in the way found themselves outnumbered, too. That same piece reported that “Acting Detective Sergeant Brindizi was attacked by a gang at 102nd Street and Third Avenue and his hat thrown into the street. He ran after his tormentors, was tripped and fell headlong into the gutter.”

The cops were pretty much powerless: “As soon as the police broke up the gangs in one district, the hoodlums resumed their activities elsewhere.”

They did end up catching a few perpetrators, but in the end, seven of them escaped charges: they were under 15. The Tribune reported that “Lieutenant Lennahan invited the boys’ fathers to come to the station and spank them and the invitation was cordially accepted.”

As the night of the 15th drew to a close, things started to slow down, and over the next day or so the riots gradually petered out.

Over the next couple of years hat-snatching did happen in spurts, but it was quickly put to a stop once and for all. In 1925, a few days before the 15th, the Times ran the headline “Discard Date for Straw Hats Ignored by President Coolidge” on its front page.

Calvin, understandably, had had enough of the ritual and presumably thought that, as the most powerful man in the land, his transgression of the convention would consign it to the scrap heap. He was right: hat snatching was far less frequent over the next few years and ultimately died out altogether.

(Another potential explanation is that, in 1925, someone was killed for wearing a straw hat. But that’s a bit morbid, so let’s pretend it all boils down to the above.)

I should mention that it wasn’t all innocent victims running for their lives, though; some good came of all this. The Tribune reported that “Some hat stores kept their doors open long after closing time and did a thriving business in soft hats” – that is, the winter hats that were meant to take over on the 15th.

You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty entrepreneurial. In fact, you know what? I tip my hat to them.  

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.