Before the Gun Bans Came the Hatpin Bans

Hatpin Photo by Flickr User litherland

Before women got on board with the right to defend themselves with firearms, they turned to another tool which was widely available to them and could be easily concealed while still easily accessible – the hatpin.

Smithsonian ran a feature in April about the menace of women armed with hatpins. When Leoti Blaker boarded a stage coach in NYC in 1903, an older man was next to her. She noticed that at every bump, he seemed to move closer. Finally, he ended up squeezed next to her and then suddenly moved his arm to wrap around her lower back. Needless to say, this was beyond inappropriate for the time, and the grab was not welcomed at all. So, she pulled out her hatpin and “plunged it into the meat of the man’s arm.” He withdrew his arm, suddenly found plenty of space to move away before he jumped off at the next stop.

Blaker apparently told the local paper, “I’ve heard about Broadway mashers and ‘L’ mashers, but I didn’t know Fifth Avenue had a particular brand of its own…. If New York women will tolerate mashing, Kansas girls will not.”

The piece highlights that the press went wild with stories around of women using hatpins for self-defense, and men in government did not react well. The story highlights that the Chicago Vice Commission earned the ire of women when they turned the blame for assaults on the victims and argued “that unchaperoned women should dress as modestly as possible—no painted cheeks or glimpse of ankle—in order to avoid unwanted attention.” When women objected to being told that they were to blame for attacks and promoted the idea of using self-defense by hatpin, that’s when the men decided that they had enough.

Members of the press helped push a panic on the matter. The magazine spotlights one newspaper’s sarcastic response to women thinking they can defend themselves: “We look for the new and imported Colt’s hatpin or the Smith and Wesson Quick-action Pin.” When I searched for the term in the newspaper archives online, I found plenty of other articles that could have come from today’s anti-gun op-eds. A Chicago Record Herald editorial that also ran in a 1910 copy of the Savannah Tribune (GA) argued:

People take greater risks every day of their lives from other things than hat pins. But that isn’t the point. The hat pin risk is stupid, needless and reckless. It imperils eye, and one single human eye is worth more than all the dagger hat pins in the world.

No woman with any regard for other people’s rights would wear one. No woman who does wear one is entitled to any complaint if the city finds a good legal means of stopping her.

Doesn’t that sound like the argument that you don’t “need” a semi-automatic rifle? And then they add in the public shaming by arguing that only women who don’t respect other people would wear them, and they certainly don’t deserve a voice in opposing any new laws targeting their right to hatpins and self-defense.

Only, in 1910, women didn’t have any means to stand up to these men who wanted them defenseless because women didn’t have a right to vote. Chicago was one of the higher profile cities to target women’s hat pins in 1910 when Alderman Herman J Bauler pushed an ordinance that would declare the pins a “public nuisance.” The Montgomery Advertiser (AL) reported on his comments:

Hidden in a mass of plumage or hair [the hatpin] comes under the designation of concealed weapons.

Bauler got his way. By a vote of 68-2, Chicago classified wearing any hatpin with an exposed length of more than half an inch beyond the hat in public as a misdemeanor where women were subject to arrest and fined $50 ($1231.80 in 2013 dollars, according to an inflation calculator). Women booed and hissed the vote, but what could they do?

In Missouri, lawmakers pulled victims of hatpin “accidents” out of the woodwork to promote their effort to ban the tools. They pushed the stories in the media and used the argument that making their lives easier was more important than women securing their hats or having access to these “concealed weapons.” According to the Smithsonian piece, other cities also opted to regulate hatpin use or size, including Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New Orleans.

By 1912, the anti-hatpin hysteria in men was making the millinery trade nervous and The Millinery Trade Review ran a piece that was picked up by the Idaho Stateman stating:

The millinery trade has the opportunity of making a concession to the public that will be appreciated and that is the reducing the size of the “deadly hat pin,” as the long hat pin is now termed by the press and men folk in general. …. Importers and manufacturers should produce a shorter pin, or a cap to fit on the end of a long pin, which could be attached to the hat by a light weight chain, so as to extend to the end of the pin wherever it protrudes from the hat. By making such a concession the trade would remove the excuse for the law makers of the country passing foolish laws to regulate the size of the hat pin.

Of course, these added features would only drive the cost of hatpins up so that poor women wouldn’t have access to “legal” hatpins. One reference I found mentioned that these lower income women were forced to use things like small pieces of potato to try and comply with the law. Wow, doesn’t that sound just like the war on cheaper handguns and the effort to mandate “smart” guns that many people can’t afford?

Ultimately, the hatpin fears largely went away when World War I broke out. Afterwards, the next great female to fear wasn’t one armed with a hatpin, but flappers, according to Smithsonian.

For more information on hatpins, here’s a guide on how to wear one (mostly with later style hats, so the pins don’t need to be as long) and there is even The American Hatpin Society for collectors. (h/t to Sarah who I know from the Annual Firearms Law Seminar for linking the Smithsonian piece when it came out and recognizing the same types of comparisons to anti-gun arguments today)

32 thoughts on “Before the Gun Bans Came the Hatpin Bans”

  1. Absolutely brilliant research. Thank you.

    Same crap, new day. Proof: if someone’s daughter wrote up a school paper on the “Deadly Hatpin”, I bet she’d be suspended for making threats or something.

  2. Thanks, guys! I do have to say that researching some of the old papers (and I found plenty of other articles that were anti-hatpin that I didn’t reference because they were too similar), I have a sudden urge to go buy some antique hatpins and hats to wear them in just to stand up to the man! :)

    I think I might check out to see if any of these ordinances are still on the books. The Pennsylvania state conference was just in Pittsburgh last month, and I have to wonder if any women there were in inadvertent violation since they do wear the big, traditional hats to the memorial service and a few other formal events.

    1. Those laws and ordinances are probably still on the books, but are no longer even looked at, much less enforced. But they are there, just waiting for some unwary woman to be caught in one law trap, and then these hatpin laws would get piled on for extra leverage.

  3. What a brilliant post! Yet another demonstration that it’s self-defense itself that is the ultimate target.

  4. My grandmother stabbed a guy in the thigh with her hatpin in circumstances very much like Leoti Blaker experienced — except it occurred on a bus. This was probably in the ’50s or ’60s. I’ll have to double-check that detail. In any event, my dad always loved telling that story. Oma took no shit.

    1. I love it! I have to admit that after reading about Leoti Blaker, I wanted to find a woman like her show up in my genealogy-related newspaper searches.

      One of the hysterical-sounding stories I cam across was a guy who arrived at the hospital making it sound like an irrational woman just attacked him for walking near her. They wondered why he didn’t try to find a police officer nearby or try to stop her if she was really on a rampage, but he just said he let her go on her way. When the police visited his home, his wife informed them that the reason he was out walking in the first place is because she kicked him out after a fight about his getting caught trying to feel up other women. Needless to say, they said that the police felt they couldn’t act on it with no description of an assailant and the wife giving evidence that he may have been doing a little more than walking near a woman. The newspaper, however, focused on the critical condition of the man from this random hatpin attack!

  5. This is why I visit this site (from NYC, no less) at least 5 times a day.

    Bitter, the only thing more brilliant than this post is if you elaborate the research a bit more and submit it as an amicus brief when the NY Safe Act lawsuit reaches SCOTUS.


    1. That might be a bit ambitious, but it is a really interesting topic to consider with so many parallels to the gun issue. The biggest reason why women would want longer pins is because they are the only ones that would work effectively with the hats being made at the time. Regulating the size of the pins risked making them obsolete and hats (with pins still attached to one side) could more easily go flying in a breeze. Requiring the cap (or the hatpin version of a lock) not only adds expense for poor women, but also makes them less useful for self-defense.

      I wouldn’t even argue that hatpins were of no danger in terms of accidents, but as the one op-ed noted, such accidents were a much, much smaller risk than most other things in life that were far more likely to hurt or kill a person.

  6. Also note that the hat pin debacle made fashion more difficult – just as restrictive open carry states do today. The only thing missing in this story is a hat pin permit.

    1. It’s not a strict fashion issue, and I think you miss out on the importance of the debate for women of the time if you ignore that there really wasn’t any socially acceptable option to go without a hat for much of history.

      Various religions, including Christian leaders in more distant times, ordered women to wear head coverings of various types. Such social requirements (not technically a legal mandate, but close enough if you believe your soul is on the line) kept the tradition in place for centuries. In addition to the changing roles of women in the home, that religious background may be a big influence in how a tradition that lasted so long and has fallen out of favor as the world has become more secular. As I mentioned, the use of hatpins beyond a self-defense tool, was really a strong social requirement to be able to leave the house and participate in the world.

      The way you view it as an OC parallel would really only work if there was an absolute public shaming of any man who even dared leave the house without a firearm secured to his body. In that case, OC would be a case where they are punishing something that’s just easier fashion. Needless to say, society is just fine with people who leave the home without guns on their body, so it really isn’t the same context.

  7. I want to say that this could make some heads explode. Then I realized it won’t, because guns are only good for murdering and have no analogues (except nukes, antis love comparing guns to nuclear weapons).

  8. Ya know, after a bit of Google-Fu, I can understand the regulation that the hatpin can’t extend more than an inch beyond the brim of the hat. That part makes sense.

    1. Cut that amount in half and take out the words “brim of the” because the reports of the Chicago ordinance said it was half an inch beyond the actual hat portion, not the brim. I can tell you as a woman, I would need it to stick out more than half an inch from the second notch in the hat if I actually expected it to stay in. It’s worse because of my hair being so thick, and if I had to wear it up as they did in the time period, the need for it to protrude a reasonable distance would be stronger.

      Also, I think it’s very telling that when I was looking up historical newspaper accounts, I started finding reports of accidental non-fatal stabbings and scratches in the early 1890s, but the political outrage didn’t start until women started using them to intentionally stab attackers and they also reportedly feared those pesky little suffragettes would use them to defend themselves from having their protests broken up.

      That said, I’m so upset that I missed out on this knowledge of hatpins and how to effectively use them before the Phoenix NRA meeting. I bought a very wide brimmed hat to wear while walking between the hotel and convention center, plus the non-convention center locations, because my skin is so fair and quick to burn. Every time I went outside, I had to hold the hat down on my head because even the breeze from walking would knock it off. If I had known about the awesomeness of hatpins (especially those that stick out of the hat more than half an inch, but still well within the brim area) then my problem would have been solved.

      I’ll also admit that I’m kind of in love with a 12-inch hatpin I found on Etsy that’s from this era. I could easily put it through my hair and barely make it to the other side. I just “measured” and a wide brimmed hat sitting on my hair in an updo would definitely have to be at least 10.5″-12″ long if I did a pin across the side.

      1. Yeah. Pretty much that simple — according to my late grandmother, pinning his hand to the bus or train seat like a butterfly was highly thought of. . .

        Pin-jitsu has never been formalized as a martial art in teh US, as far as I know, nor would ladies in the periods where a hatpin would be a normal, everyday componant of any lady’s costume normally study any martial arts. . .

  9. I’m in the midst of a fourteen hour work day, so I don’t have a chance to do it myself, but it might be interesting to see if there is much pushback against canes and walking sticks. They were an ubiquitous part of every man’s wardrobe for over a century and a very formidable defensive weapon… But they just sort of vanished.

    1. I’d put it more on automobiles and fashion. People stopped walking long distances, even in urban areas. When a functional tool becomes a mere accessory, then affectation, it often disappears.

      Cars and A/C also killed men’s hats (it wasn’t “Kennedy”) and variable weight (summer and winter wool) suits. Hats and suits and sport coats as an all-day functional items, with high fitted armholes to allow for free movement, died for that reason as well, no need in the heated car and office and why just wear a hat for the few steps in between?

    2. i recall that California has some restrictions on who can carry a cane or walking stick, pretty obviously for the purpose of preventing someone from having one as a weapon.

  10. Holy Crap! What a find. Good work Bitter.

    Not so ironically, today a women could still be prosecuted in California for wearing a so-called “deadly hat pin”, as any weapon carried concealed which is capable of stabbing would fall under the law prohibiting concealed carrying of “dirks or daggers”. Yeah, that’s Commiefornia for you. What can one do except get the hell out while one still can?

    1. I did know about it weeks ago. I just brought it up with Sebastian last night at dinner, and he’s the one who suggested doing the extra research using our newspaper archive subscriptions to look for more information on it and writing a post about it. In fact, I believe I saw the link via Sarah on the day it posted.

  11. the most frightening ones had black handles!
    however short was safer than long, unlike cut-off barrels.
    rest assured there was, somewhere, a “Two Pin Peg” and who needs more than one…right?

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