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Video Transcript, Citations, and Credits

Hatpins- A Woman’s Tool For Independence and Self-Defense

Imagine a young woman has just left work for the day and she is on her way home.  It’s a warm summer day and an older gentleman has just sat next to her in the cramped stagecoach.  The coach goes over a bump and the man next her gets a little closer- she doesn’t think too much of it; another big bump and now they are hip to hip- he makes no move to separate- that’s odd.  Another big bump and he now puts his arm around her! That’s it! She reaches up to her hat and pulls out her only defense, the one thing she knows that will make this man back off- her hat pin! A 9 inch pointed at one end and ornate at the other pin and she jabs him with it in the arm! The masher- as men like this one would be called in the early 1900s would have been called- screams in pain and backs off.


This story is based on a true event of a young 20 something woman who moved from Kansas to New York City to work in a newly industrialized city in the 1900s.  By the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s the world was on the precipice of significant change, the Industrial Revolution had taken hold and as the cities became industrialized the population shifted from the rural areas into the cities.  This meant changes in a variety of areas- social and cultural norms, fashion, environmental, educational and political to name a few. 


Young women left their homes in the countryside and moved to the cities for opportunities to make their own money and way in the world. This is a significant shift in cultural norms.  Prior to this women weren’t allowed to go anywhere unchaperoned. Now while living in the city there is a new sense of independence and a male chaperone is no longer welcome.  The concept of dating begins during this time as opposed to what was happening before with courtship- when the young man would ask the father to “court” the daughter and that would eventually lead to marriage.  In the city this doesn’t happen, ladies went to dances, shops, etc on their own without parental supervision. Women began to wear rouge on their cheeks and their hemlines rose scandalously high---just above the ankle! Due to these changes in women's fashion and unchaperoned behavior there was an increase in the amount of attacks on women.  According to the Chicago Vice Squad- women put themselves in danger by going out unchaperoned or wearing the rouge or showing off their ankle.  In essence,  asking for the “mashers”- which was period slang for lecherous or predatory men to make their advances. Of course, Suffragists will counter this by saying it’s not about fashion or women’s increase in freedom but the “vileness of the ‘masher’ .“


But, what about these hat pins- why do women need them and where did they come from? 

Actually, we could go as far back as the 1400s or the Middle Ages in Europe when pins were used to keep wimples and veils of proper ladies in place over their hair. For the purposes of our discussion though, 1800 making the pins was a cottage industry. In other words it was a good that was produced in the home and generally an entire family was employed to make the product- as such only so much could be made as it was quite time consuming thus putting the pins in high demand. By 1832, a pin-making machine was patented and the production of pins with long tapering points began. In the 1850s hat pins became a necessity in order to secure straw hats.


What really began the hat pin popularity was when in 1903, music hall actresses like Lillian Russell and Lillian Langtry wore elaborate hats without bonnet strings. Those elaborate hats started a mini revolution. Many of the large hats that women wore during the early 1900s were made with bird feathers, sometimes an entire bird or half of a bird on it.  Imagine that and having to fit all of your hair, that at the most may have been trimmed but never really cut underneath the hat- thus the hat pin necessity.  Manufacturers moved away from the bonnet strings and turned to hat pins to keep these hats on the heads of the women and jewelers, and artisans, like Louis Tiffany, took on the task of making very ornate and sometimes quite expensive hat pins. Some of these pins ranged in design from the Baroque style to Art Nouveau, materials ranged from  brass to copper to gold and Carnival glass and gems. There were even some hat pins that had a small mirror and powder puff in them.  Mass produced hat pins generally had a white or black bead at the end and was known as the “working girl” hat pin as all women had to wear hats and all had to wear pins; these were the most accessible for that socio-economic class.  Hat pins were kept on a woman’s dressing table in a hat pin holder. 


These elaborate hats caused their own problems.  In 1913 the Audubon Society was formed out of necessity as nearly 60 species of birds were almost hunted to extinction for use on these women’s hats!  Some of the more popular bird hats were Egrets, Peacocks, Herons, Ostrich and Spoonbills.  In fact the Spoonbill feathers were $80 an ounce- 3X their weight in gold! Lobbyists in 1918 worked to get the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed that made it illegal to kill, sell or transport certain birds or feathers as a direct result of this woman’s fashion.


Considering that these pins have to hold so much hair under a huge hat the pins have to be sharp and to some extent long.  How long is too long? As more accounts of women attacking men with their hat pins come about cries for shortened hat pin lengths abound.  From NYC to Chicago to St. Louis women were using their hat pins for self defense to poke, stab and drive away mashers.  But then there were some accidents...a 19 year old girl from Scranton was fooling around with her boyfriend and thrust her hat pin at him--she pierced his heart and he died. Another account claims that a NY streetcar rider felt a prick behind his ear from a woman's hat pin, accidentally, he fell into a coma and died within a week. Slowly, across the country and the globe the hat pin became viewed as a deadly weapon.  In fact, in 1908, an English judge feared pins could be used as a weapon in his court, ordered a group of suffragettes on trial to remove their hat pins and their hats- which was an insult to the women. In 1909, a bill was introduced in the Arkansas state legislature that copied an Illinois law limiting the length of pins to 9 inches or ladies had to take out permits to possess longer ones.  In Chicago, the fine was $50 if your hat pin exceeded 9 inches.  Hat pins could range in length from 6 to 12 inches- now in most major cities women had to trim their hat pins down to 9 inches in order to wear them in public.  Even in Sydney, Australia there were fines for wearing a hat pin over 9 inches- 60 women decided to go to jail rather than pay the fine. 


But are they deadly weapons or is this a means of controlling women? Take into consideration the years- 1909 the suffrage movement is amping up in the country and across the globe.  Many suffragists saw the hat pin controversy as a means of keeping women down. “This is but another argument for women and another painful illustration of the fact that men cannot discipline women. Women need discipline; they need to be forced, if not led, out of their barbarisms, but women never have and never will submit to the discipline of men. Give women political power and the best among them will gradually train the uncivilized just as the best among men have trained their sex.” Harriot Stanton Blatch- daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

 In the meanwhile, World War I, the Great War, breaks out and everything changes.  Metals were used for war, hats became smaller, fashions changed and women cut their hair. Right after the war.  Once the bob haircut made its debut the cloche hat became popular as well- the large over bedecked hats were out of style and the hat pin craze had run its course.  Men had to contend with women showing more than just a little ankle as the Flapper Era had begun and the right to vote for women had been won with the 19th Amendment which was ratified in August of 1920. 



Abbott, Karen. “‘The Hatpin Peril’ Terrorized Men Who Couldn't Handle the 20th-Century Woman.”, Smithsonian Institution, 24 Apr. 2014, 

Brief History of Hatpins, 

Frost, Natasha. “In the 19th Century, Women Used Hatpins to Defend Themselves From Street Harassment.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 11 Oct. 2017,


Host: Heather Brown

Video and Editing: Kayleigh Mihalko



Produced with a grant from the Valley Community Foundation


©2021 Seymour Historical Society

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