When it comes to tension surrounding race and Super Bowl victories, rioting makes perfect sense. But occasionally, the strangest things—like eggnog and nylon—can induce a riot, leaving historians scratching their heads forevermore.
Perhaps one of the weirdest riots to ever take place was the Straw Hat Riot of 1922, when people were rampaging through the streets of New York and beating up anyone wearing a straw hat.
Straw hats had appeared in the 19th century as summertime wear and initially it was not considered good form for men to wear these in big cities. By the early 20th century, they were considered acceptable day attire in North American cities at the height of summer even for businessmen, but there was an unwritten rule that one was not supposed to wear a straw hat past September 15 (which was known as “Felt Hat Day”). If any man was seen wearing a straw hat, he was, at minimum, subjecting himself to ridicule, and it was a tradition for youths to knock straw hats off of wearers’ heads and stomp on them. This tradition became well established, and newspapers of the day would often warn people of the impending approach of the fifteenth, when men would have to switch to felt or silk hats.
The riot itself began on September 13, 1922, two days before Felt Hat Day, when a group of youths decided to get an early jump on the tradition in the former “Mulberry Bend” area of Manhattan. The more innocuous stomping turned into a brawl when the youths tried to stomp a group of dock workers’ hats, and the dock workers fought back. The brawl soon stopped traffic on the Manhattan Bridge and was eventually broken up by police, leading to some arrests.
But the fights continued to escalate the next evening. Gangs of teenagers prowled the streets wielding large sticks, sometimes with a nail driven through the top, looking for pedestrians wearing straw hats and beating those who resisted. One man claimed that his hat was taken and the group who had taken his hat joined a mob of about 1,000 that was snatching hats all along Amsterdam Avenue. Several men were hospitalized from the beatings they received after resisting having their hats taken. The straw hat riot lasted eight days.
While almost everyone loves a nice, warm glass of eggnog at a holiday party, few people would actually start a riot if the hostess ran out. However, that was not the case on 24–25 December 1826, when cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point started a huge riot on Christmas Eve when their barracks monitor tried to shut down their festivities. Alcohol was not permitted at the facility, but that didn’t stop several of the cadets from smuggling in whiskey so they could partake in their favorite holiday beverage.
After a few hours of late-night partying, the cadets were pretty sloshed and started to get rowdy. When commandants like William Worth tried to shut down the partying, they were faced with a barricaded door and several cadets pulled out their pistols. The riot went on until Christmas morning, and eventually involved more than one-third of the cadets by the time it ceased on Christmas morning. A subsequent investigation by academy officials resulted in the implication of 70 cadets and the court-martialing of 20 of them and one enlisted soldier. Among the participants in the riot — though he was not court-martialed — was future Confederate States President Jefferson Davis.
A ballet titled “The Rite of Spring” doesn’t sound particularly riot educing, but when composer Igor Stravinsky debuted it at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in 1913, it created a huge uproar. Within a few minutes of the ballet’s first piece, audience members started arguing and hissing and yelling at the performers. Pretty soon the crowd had taken fistfights out onto the street, but the whole event is mired in confusion, with BBC concluding that “even on this point [whether there was applause near the end], we cannot be quite sure.”
There are indications that Stravinsky intentionally wanted to upset as many people as possible by subverting the artform with obscene gestures, making a mockery of native culture, and weird sounds in place of music. “He [Stravinsky] knew there was going to be trouble,” said Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers. Announcing the ballet in the Parisian press, Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, had suggested it would cause “impassioned debate.” Esteban Buch, director of studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science in Paris, says that Stravinsky was setting the scene “for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.”
While a straw-hat riot may seem strange, a top hat riot is downright comical. The common form of the top hat riot legend has it that a John Hetherington (a possibly apocryphal English haberdasher) was arraigned on 15 January 1797 on a charge of breach of the peace and inciting a riot. Reportedly he had “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people)” and the officers of the Crown stated that “several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.”
The story first appeared in a late 1890s edition of the Hatters’ Gazette: in 1899 the quarterly journal Notes and Queries reported the story, noting that it originated in “a recent number of the Hatters’ Gazette.” Later accounts also attribute the story to that gazette – however, both the Australian Law Review of 1927, and The Dearborn Independent erroneously describe it as being reported in a 1797 edition – obviously an error, as it only began publication in 1878. So did it really happen? In any case, Prince Albert would soon popularize the top hat and make it one of the most trendy hats in England.
The Beatles missing lunch
In 1966, The Beatles went on tour in the Philippines and were invited to a presidential luncheon with the nation’s first lady, Imelda Marcos. Unfortunately, the band’s promoter forgot to tell that band that they were invited to the luncheon, and they inadvertently snubbed a key political figure in the Philippines.
While the lunch sort of went on without them, they just sat watching television in their hotel room, completely unaware that it was going on in the first place. When the band finally left the hotel room, a huge crowd of angry Filipinos confronted them. Eventually, the hotel staff stopped serving them and they attempted to flee the country. However, at the airport, they were wrapped up in a large riot and several members of their party were injured.
As was the case with Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots in 1992, a mounting racial tension contributed to the strange riot that took place in Los Angeles in 1943. The event, which was later dubbed “The Zoot Suit Riots,” were the result of cultural tension between the latino community and white sailors stationed in the area. Young latino (and some black) men often dressed in fancy suits with pork pie hats and long chains, and while World War II went on, despite fabrics rationing, they continued to wear them.
This infuriated the Marines stationed in Los Angeles as wool was being rationed for the war, and they believed the latino community wasn’t being patriotic or supporting the troops. Eventually, things came to a head in June of 1943 when several street brawls broke out. Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and later civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. After several days, more than 150 people had been injured.
The riots subsided after LA ordered the police “to curb illegal production of men’s clothing in violation of WPB limitation orders” and the Navy and Marine Corps command staffs confined sailors and Marines to barracks and ordering Los Angeles off-limits to all military personnel.
In 1935, the DuPont Corporation developed a new, exciting fabric called nylon. The stretchy fabric quickly replaced women’s silk stockings, and became a must-have item for women everywhere. However, once World War II broke out, it got increasingly difficult for the DuPont to continue making women’s stockings as most of the nylon supply had to go towards military gear like parachutes. As a result, the cost of remaining nylons — on the black market — shot up, and most women couldn’t afford to buy them anymore. Nylons were considered so essential to women by this time that it became popular to fake the appearance of nylons by applying makeup on the legs.
When the war ended, DuPont promptly declared that they would be able to produce their famous stockings again by Christmas, and launched a campaign called “Nylons for Christmas.” Unfortunately, DuPont greatly underestimated how hard it would be to make enough stockings made in time. They were only able to release a limited amount of stockings, causing huge Black-Friday style riots to break out all over the United States. On one occasion, 40,000 women fought for 13,000 pairs of stockings and the riots included everything from biting to smashing windows.