Boaters & Bowlers

Speaking of time machines, here’s a video recording of a stroll through New York city in 1911.

A couple of things struck me: the hats! Everyone is wearing them, with the exception being the kids. I wonder if there was some sort of ritual associated with coming of age amongst the New Yorkians — “Now you are a man, and may and must wear this headdress at all times, lest ye scandalize the populace with the distressing dome of your skull.”

Also notice how the pedestrians just wander across the street on a whim, as if they haven’t yet realized that the steely horseless carriages are going to claim total ownership of the thoroughfares.

Hey, wait, maybe the hats are the secret passkey to allow one to ignore traffic. I’m going to have to try it next time I’m in NYC — put on a nice Panama and stride confidently into Times Square.


  1. says

    The story I had always heard was that hats were essentially mandatory in public all over the US — not just in New York — up until Kennedy started doing public appearances bare-headed.

  2. Sunday Afternoon says

    That was very well done – why so few broadcasters bother to adjust to the footage frame rate when playing old film is quite beyond me. It gives such a warped impression. Unsurprisingly people back then walked, ran or mugged for the camera just like they do now.

    Something I hadn’t previously known – the driving seat in cars in the US began on the right. I wonder when it changed?

  3. jonmelbourne says

    It’s also noticeable how everyone is looking up and ahead of them as they’re walking, such a change from today when everyone walks along looking at their phones.

  4. davidnangle says

    The camera, or the camera crew drew only slightly more interest than one does today.

  5. garnetstar says

    @2, you are correct. For a couple centuries at least, no one, male or female, who had the slightest pretense at respectability, went outside without a hat.

    Might have got started in the Dark Ages or some such time when people rarely washed their hair, and wanted to keep it covered. But, by the 19th century (if not earlier) it was a sign that you were, or aspired to be taken for, a law-abiding member of society and not an anarchist, criminal, or homeless beggar.

  6. garnetstar says

    P.S. I meant, that got started and was true all over Europe, not just in America.

  7. cartomancer says

    One imagines the American Hat Lobby was very powerful in the 1910s. Politicians were probably deep in the pockets of Big Hat, ever ready to deflect public attention from hat-based atrocities in their midst. After all, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a hat is a good guy with a hat.

  8. keinsignal says

    For a contemporary’s view on the significance of hats, look for the 1914 short story “The Dreamer” by HH Munro (dba Saki). The dynamic was likely slightly different in Britain, with their somewhat stronger class divisions, but in essence a hat was a social marker, evidence that one was not part of the serving class. Hatlessness was a statement reserved for the lowliest working stiffs and the most daring young non-conformists. (Fashion repeats itself, apparently. Bare-headedness = Edwardian grunge)

  9. KG says


    That’s made easier by the requirement that bad guys wear black hats and good guys, white ones.

  10. weylguy says

    Speaking of time travel, Dr. Myers, you probably overlooked the guy on crutches with a leg missing at the 2:17 mark — it’s none other than Edward Fox, the hired assassin from the 1973 film The Day of the Jackal. You likely also missed the walk-though gorilla at the 4:12 mark (who’s also wearing a hat).

  11. davidnangle says

    All those horses hard at work, and imagine them riding a ferry ride… I’ll bet the city smells better than it used to.

  12. says

    John F. Kennedy was famous for breaking the taboo against not wearing at hat out of doors. That’s why it’s no longer required. (As a person of baldness, however, I do it to prevent sunburning my scalp. I learned the hard way.)

  13. says

    cartomancer @ #9:

    One imagines the American Hat Lobby was very powerful in the 1910s. Politicians were probably deep in the pockets of Big Hat, ever ready to deflect public attention from hat-based atrocities in their midst.

    You joke, but:

    …The main drivers of the plume trade were millinery centers in New York and London. Hornaday, who described London as “the Mecca of the feather killers of the world,” calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets. And egrets were not the only species under threat. In 1886, it was estimated, 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers.

    Egrets and other wading birds were being decimated until two crusading Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, set off a revolt. Their boycott of the trade would culminate in formation of the National Audubon Society and passage of the Weeks-McLean Law, also known as the Migratory Bird Act, by Congress on March 4, 1913. The law, a landmark in American conservation history, outlawed market hunting and forbade interstate transport of birds.

    In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prohibited transport across state lines of birds taken in violation of state laws. But the law, poorly enforced, did little to slow the commerce in feathers. Getting in the way of the plume trade could be dangerous. In 1905, in an incident that generated national outrage, a warden in south Florida, Guy M. Bradley, was shot and killed while attempting to arrest a plume hunter—who was subsequently acquitted by a sympathetic jury.

  14. davidc1 says

    @4 Hi ,In Bill Bryson’s Book “1927 ” i think he says something about right and left hand driving ,but then again it might be in “A Short History Of Nearly Everything “.
    Re the elevated railway ,is that the same one used in “The French Connection “where Popeye Doyle is chasing the bad French guy?

  15. says

    I thought it was the ties that protected them, or at least the men. Also, I remember reading that back then there were serious discussions of the serious pollution problem caused by horse shit. What would we ever do?

  16. stwriley says

    You’re not so wrong about the “coming of age” aspect of wearing hats in early 20th century America. My father-in-law, who grew up in a fairly successful middle-class family in Philadelphia in the 30s and 40s, used to talk about how it was almost a ritual of impending manhood when his father took he and each of his brothers down to the Stetson factory to buy them a proper hat when they turned 16. They’d worn caps (and yarmulkes) before that (as children did), but to own a hat was to be grown up.

  17. anbheal says

    Even after Kennedy, hats were ubiquitous until the end of the 60s. Working class men wore those little stevedore berets, middle class men wore fedoras and trilbies, some upper class men still wore bowlers. Working class women wore headscarves a lot, but so did many well-to-do women, and of course hats of various qualities. Catholic women wore hats at Mass through the early 70s.

    You could identify a person’s socioeconomic status at 100 yards. Largely by the hat and coat. And then all of a sudden, Kennedys and Rockefellers and Saltonstalls on campus were wearing torn blue jeans and peasant shirts, while inner city guys started showing up in Armani. And now we have rich preppies wearing faded Bermuda rum caps on Valentine’s Day dates in fancy French bistros. Go figure.

    Steven Tyler and Joni Mitchell could wear themselves some hats!

  18. Larry says

    The link is to a video taken in April, 1906 by someone riding a streetcar down Market St. in San Francisco. Same hats. Same blatent disregard of traffic laws. Only difference is, 4 days later, all these buildings were smoking ruins as a result of the great earthquake.

  19. sherlock says

    Inasmuch as I am deeply embedded in the flyover states, I found it quite interesting to see the cable car system.

  20. says

    I’ll bet the city smells better than it used to.

    The cars pictured in the video would be part of the reason why there are not gigantic piles of horseshit all over the place. And by “gigantic” I mean – in some parts of NYC they were 4 storeys tall. [stderr] Large quantities of horse urine mixed with poop and a bit of rain produce a really nasty “poo tea” that’ll burn the hairs right out of your nose.

    Cars, of course, came with different problems.

  21. jrkrideau says

    @ 18 Ranald Couch

    I remember reading that back then there were serious discussions of the serious pollution problem caused by horse shit. What would we ever do?.


    See “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894”; it was by no means a joke. In 1894 roughly 99.99% of goods moved in horse-drawn vehicles at one point or another.

    Have a look at “The Great Episootic of 1872” an example of what happens when you have a transportation failure.

  22. Victor says

    We moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1957 when I was 9. For me, it meant no longer wearing a white shirt, dress pants, and tie to school (a public school) and not having daily fingernail and handkerchief inspections by the teacher. I rejoiced the first day I was able to wear Levis to school. Less meaningful, but still apparent, was the lack of hats on men.

    Jump forward to the mid 80’s. I hadn’t seen family in NY for decades (don’t ask why) and decided to stop there when returning from a business trip to Europe. My uncle invited me over for Sunday brunch. I’d normally dress casual, but knowing that my great-uncle would be there, decided to wear a suit.

    When my great-uncle arrived I thought he would be pleased that I had dressed for the occasion. Instead, he complained that I wasn’t wearing a hat. And that my hair was too long;

  23. tacitus says

    Apparently, my great-grandfather made a very nice living supplying horse-drawn carts for transport and delivery services around the turn of the previous century. Alas, he didn’t catch on to the importance of the internal combustion engine until it was too late…

  24. markkernes says

    About the hats: Guessing there were a lot more birds flying overhead in those days, hence the need to protect one’s hair from being shat on.

  25. says

    At 6:18 possible sighting of LGBT people. Two men (or teenage boys) holding hands, walking behind someone in a men’s hat (and suit? hard to tell) but with a bun suggesting they have long hair. At least one of them and possibly all three are black folks. Maybe it’s nothing, but there are (without any doubt at all given the number of humans) some gay people in that film, and maybe they aren’t shy about it? Possible. Fun if true.

  26. jrkrideau says

    For those who like this type of film, I would recommend the USSR 1929 film Человек с кино-аппратомor as we would say in English, The guy with the camera.

    Since my Russian is close to non-existent, I am not sure where most of it was filmed but Wiki suggests the main venues were Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa.

    There is a fantastic shot at 11:04 or 11:05 of a street banner for Maxim Gorky. Presumably as he returned from his second exile. It seems to have a leftover feeling as if Gorky had been there the day before.

    I am not a movie buff but apparently some of the camera techniques were amazing innovative. The holiday rush to the train at roughly 20:00 is fantastic. The shot of the camera man filming the camera man filming the travelers is amazing . Note: I am talking 3, or do I mean 4, cameras all in horse-drawn carriages at speed!

    Does anyone know what those one-horse taxis are called? Google either returns “troika” or gives me a 19th C gentleman’s brougham!

    The film seems to range from gritty realism to whimsy.

    Oh, I had to go back and check but almost everyone, male and female, is wearing a hat when out of doors.

  27. laurian says

    Perhaps hats were worn to keep the persistent aerosol of manure, coal dust and god only knows what else off one’s head.

  28. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Wow, New York, just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.

  29. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Just got into NYC for work this afternoon, and took a walk around. Not a lot of hats, but the pedestrian behavior hasn’t changed much.

  30. jodyp says

    About ten years ago, I was working in NYC close to the World Trade Center site. No unauthorized traffic was allowed, so pedestrians ruled the streets.

    It was idyllic. Not unlike the video, even. Everyone in hats and coats walking up and down the street, pushcarts doing their business, the works. I actually really miss it.

  31. drew says

    Auto clubs got laws against jaywalking on the books pretty much everywhere in the US in the 1920s. Before that the roads used to belong to people. And drivers who “accidentally” killed someone were in trouble for manslaughter at the least. But somehow auto clubs played politics and moved the blame for the deaths to those least likely to win a car vs human confrontation. The auto industry was eerily similar to firearms in the way they reframed “normal.”

  32. chrislawson says

    Funny how the bowler hat is now strongly associated with European bankers given that it was nearly universal throughout the Western world in many lines of work in the early C20. (Oh, and some of those bowler hats in the movie are actually Homburgs.)

    Also, where did the sound come from?

  33. Andrew Dalke says

    Marcus @ #24, while cars helped, I think George Waring’s Street Cleaning Department had a bigger effect. He was brought in in 1895 and, quoting , “[his] men cleared a shin-deep accumulation of waste across the city. Horse carcasses were removed from the streets and sold for glue; horse manure was sold for fertilizer. … The success of Waring’s efforts was quick, dramatic and much appreciated by New York citizens. A parade was held for the sanitation works in 1896.”

  34. billyjoe says

    Chris Lawson,

    This was a silent film.
    The film was restored and sound added for effect.

  35. KG says

    John F. Kennedy was famous for breaking the taboo against not wearing at hat out of doors. That’s why it’s no longer required. – cervantes@15

    The same change happened all over Europe, and the rest of the European-influenced world, and influential as Kennedy was, I doubt his example was the sole or even a significant cause.

  36. Dunc says

    @ #28, 31, possibly others… Hats were worn because that’s what the prevailing cultural standards of the time dictated. Clothing is almost entirely a matter of fashion, and more-or-less completely arbitrary. Looking for a practical reason for hat wearing in America at that time makes about as much sense as trying to figure out the practical application of bell-bottoms and platform shoes during the ’70s. It’s just what people wore. Rest assured, the clothes you’re wearing right now will look just as strange and dated in 100 years time (and quite possibly sooner).

  37. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Great American Satan,

    I was thinking Stevie Wonder, but whatever works for you.

  38. kevinalexander says


    ….in essence a hat was a social marker, evidence that one was not part of the serving class.

    Yes. Notice the two hatless waggoners near the beginning.

  39. Don Quijote says

    Here in my corner of Galicia one can still see many men wearing hats, usually older men. During summer a lot more can be seen as many people use panamas for sun protection. Generaly ladies wear hats for weddings and some formal occaisions. Younger people tend to wear baseball caps if any at all.

    I would feel improperly dressed if I went out without my fedora but I’m not one of those guys.

  40. laurian says

    @43 You are a step or two from saying God told them to wear hats and that’s that. I did not argue the shit raining from the sky was the lone reason for the popularity of hats but cultural norms arise in large part from the environment in which they develop. Hats keep shit off your head, whether that shit be UV radiation, precipitation or shit. Why wouldn’t their functionality be reflected in culture as fashion?

    You have the Hansom cab before the draft horse

  41. Dunc says


    Hats keep shit off your head, whether that shit be UV radiation, precipitation or shit. Why wouldn’t their functionality be reflected in culture as fashion?

    Because the materials used for the types of hats popular at the time make them a pretty poor choice for keeping your head clean, what with them being really quite expensive and virtually impossible to clean effectively. Keeping the sun, off, sure… Actual shit, not so much. That’s why people invented hat protectors when cheap plastics became available.

  42. blf says

    Heh. I’ve been wearing hats for about as long as I can recall — in fact, a passing T. rex recently stopped me, opened a rather neat Wareolestes rex-skin wallet, and showed me a picture of several hat-wearing individuals, one of whom looks a bit like me — for protection from sun, rain, dive-bombing peas, and the occasional volcano. (The milliner also said it was meteor-proof.) It can even be used to shoo away horses long enough to get the flamethrower ignited. Current model is a now rather-beaten looking leather (albeit nothing as neat as W. rex) one fairly similar to what I’ve seen called a Cessnock.

  43. jmsr7 says

    They wear HATS because they haven’t invented SUNGLASSES!

    This is my guess about why everyone is wearing hats. I first noticed that at about 1:05 in the two boat workers had tight little hats with short brims, and the brims were pulled VERY far down, almost as if they were trying to SHADE THEIR EYES.

    Nowadays, when people like us have to endure the glare of the daystar, we wear sunglasses. But this is freakin’ 1910. Sunglasses haven’t been invented yet. According to the wikipedia article, they were invented in the late 1920s and didn’t become popular until decades later.

    Although i suppose it could be a fashion thing.

  44. jrkrideau says

    # 37 Tethys

    Hansom cabs.

    No. Sorry, I was referring to the Soviet movie not the NY movie. I do think the NY movie is the first time I have see a hansom cab actually in use

  45. jrkrideau says

    Re hats.
    Wearing a hat seems to have been de rigeur from at least the middle ages. The difference seems that men often (always?) wore them inside the house.

    Perhaps the more surprising thing is that it is not as common now.

  46. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I assume this simply predated pop culture assuming that anyone who wears a hat is ipso facto a douchebag.

  47. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I can never find a hat that fits my head. I’m living proof that a large head does not guarantee high intelligence.

  48. jrkrideau says

    @ 53 Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y
    On the male side, baldness is a great motivator. Ever since that stupid bicycle ride sans cyclist cap on the Island a few years ago, my trusty beret travels almost everywhere with me. Note: the cycling cap is much better if one is actually cycling.

    On the female side, I really do not know. However, if you look at medieval paintings often the higher class women wear headgear (I would not call them hats) that are extremely elaborate, totally conceal the hair and look bloody uncomfortable. They make a hijab look racy.

    Catholic nuns, at least in the Order I am familiar with, wore such things till the Second Vatican Council suggested changes and I think that was in the 1960’s

  49. Tethys says


    No. Sorry, I was referring to the Soviet movie not the NY movie. I do think the NY movie is the first time I have see a hansom cab actually in use.

    Hansom was the designer, but the cab is short for cabriolet, which is a two wheeled carriage with one horse. Fancier versions had a roof that could be pulled up in inclement weather. . A troika refers to the three horses used to pull either a sleigh or a carriage. . The particular type in your film might be called a droshki. The arch over the horse looks similar to the photos in the wiki article.