You couldn’t miss him in a crowd. The 16th president wore the stovepipe hat in war and peace, on the stump and in Washington, on occasions formal and informal.
In fact, Lincoln wore a variety of top hats, all with a different design. During his first inauguration in 1860, he donned a lower silk plush hat. During his second term in 1864, he once again wore a stovetop hat. His last top hat was purchased from a Washington hat maker by the name of J. Y. Davis. No one really knows when the hat was purchased or how many times it was worn. It was the last hat worn when he left for the Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the night he was assassinated.
Nowadays, we have trouble envisioning Lincoln without his stovepipe hat, but how he began wearing it remains unclear. Early in his political career, historians tell us, Lincoln probably chose the hat as a gimmick. In those days he was rarely seen without his stovepipe, the traditional seven or even eight-inch-high hat that gentlemen had been wearing since early in the century. True, Lincoln’s version was often battered a bit, as if hard-worn, an affectation perhaps intended to suit his frontier image.
The reformer Carl Schurz, who served as a general in the Civil War, fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg and other major battles, later recalled his first meeting with Lincoln, in a railroad car in the 1850s, on the way to one of the future president’s debates with Stephen Douglas.
Schurz described Lincoln’s tailcoat as shabby and his stovepipe hat as crumpled, giving him what one historian has called a look “of unassuming simplicity.” So ubiquitous is the image of the battered stovepipe that the playwright John Drinkwater, in his popular Abraham Lincoln (1918) play, has Mrs.Lincoln saying, shortly after her husband is nominated for president, “I’ve tried for years to make him buy a new hat.”
John Drinkwater's 'Abraham Lincoln' (1952, CBS) Starring Robert Pastene and Judith Evelyn, the TV adaptation was notable for featuring actor James Dean in the small but significant role of William Scott, a Union soldier court-martialed and condemned to death for falling asleep on watch. May 26, 1952.
The stovepipe hat is likely a descendant of the 17th-century Capotain, Steeple, or Sugarloaf hats, which was in turn influenced by the headgear worn by soldiers, the stovepipe hat gained in popularity until, by the early 1800s, says Debbie Henderson in her book "The Top Hat: An Illustrated History," “it had become the irrepressible symbol of prestige and authority.
When Lincoln gave his famous speech at the Cooper Institute in New York in February of 1860, some observers were quoted as saying that his hat looked bashed in. But this is unlikely. As the biographer Harold Holzer points out, Lincoln, the very day of his speech, bought a new stovepipe hat from Knox Great Hat and Cap at 212 Broadway. His suit fit poorly, his boots hurt his feet, but when he gave his speech in his stovepipe, says Holzer, “at least he would look taller than any man in the city.”
Lincoln’s stovepipe hats were not always of the same design. At his first inauguration in 1860, he wore the lower silk plush hat that had by that time come into fashion. By the start of his second term in 1864, he was again wearing a stovepipe, following (or perhaps ushering) a style that would continue for a good decade or more after his assassination.
Lincoln’s stovepipe made him an easy mark for caricaturists, and many drawings have survived in which the hat is the viewer’s means for identifying him. But the cartoonists are not the only ones who found it easy to spot the 16th president in his hat.
In August of 1864, Lincoln was on horseback, on his way to the Soldiers’ Home, about three miles northeast of the White House, where he had the use of a stone cottage in the summer months. A would-be assassin fired from near the road, shooting the stovepipe off Lincoln’s head. Soldiers who found it said there was a bullet hole through the crown. This incident gave rise to the popular notion that the hat saved Lincoln’s life.
The better surmise is that the hat made Lincoln easy to spot in a crowd. In July of 1864, at the Battle of Fort Stevens, he stood in the battlements wearing his trademark hat—making him, in Carl Sandburg’s phrase, “too tall a target” for the Confederates—until warned by a Union officer to get down.
On the night Lincoln died, he dressed for the theater in a silk stovepipe hat, size 7⅛, from the Washington hatmaker J.Y. Davis, to which he had added a black silk mourning band in memory of his son Willie. When Lincoln was shot, the hat was on the floor beside his chair.
|The stovepipe hat that was worn by President Lincoln to Ford's Theatre the night he was shot.|
No other president is so firmly connected in our imaginations with an item of haberdashery. We remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cigarette holder and John F. Kennedy’s rocker, but Lincoln alone is remembered for what he wore. Harold Holzer says, “Hats were important to Lincoln: They protected him against inclement weather, served as storage bins for important papers he stuck inside their lining, and further accentuated his great height advantage over other men.”
Lincoln’s taste for hats also gave us a remarkably durable image of our most remarkable president. Lincoln remains a giant in our memories and looms even taller in his stovepipe hat.
UPDATE ON THE STOVEPIPE HAT - JULY 2020
After finding no evidence that a purchased stovepipe hat belonged to Abraham Lincoln, Illinois State Historian, Dr. Samuel Wheeler was out of a job, fired by Governor J B Pritzker, on July 15, 2020, and had been escorted out of the building. Gov. Pritzker's office wanted a different role for the state historian. That is one of two titles Wheeler held in his $88,000-a-year job — the other being director of research.
|Dr. Samuel Wheeler was the State of Illinois Historian and Director of Research and Collections for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation.|
Dr. Samuel Wheeler had worked at the presidential library since 2013 and was named state historian in 2016.
“I think it was clear from the governor’s office that they wanted to go in a different direction with the position of historian and make it more like the poet laureate,” said Ray LaHood, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum (opened April 2005) chairman of the board and a former member of Congress and U.S. secretary of transportation. He said the position would be subject to a term appointment and the historian would travel the state giving speeches at schools and universities, and also lecture at the Lincoln library and museum in Springfield. LaHood said he thinks the new state historian position would require legislation to create. The director of research would be a separate position.
Since questions arose about the hat’s authenticity a few years ago, it has been removed from the display list. Trustee Kathryn Harris said that the subcommittee authorized Wheeler to consult with textile experts to determine whether the hat’s material is from Lincoln’s era and whether labeling inside can connect the Great Emancipator with the hatmaker on July 7th.
|This beaver-skin stovepipe hat purportedly belonged to Abraham Lincoln, but its provenance is now the topic of fierce debate.|
The hat was once appraised at $6.5 million. In the report, Wheeler focused on a history of double-dealing, conflicts of interest, and neglect of basic due diligence in studying the hat’s provenance before its purchase. He also slammed a “weaponization” of the hat during years of friction between the museum and the not-for-profit that acquired it on behalf of the museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the state agency for which Wheeler worked.
The stovepipe hat was the cornerstone of a $25 million haul of Lincoln artifacts in 2007 by the foundation — just as the newly-opened, state-run museum was looking to establish itself as a can’t-miss Illinois tourism destination and a nationally respected institution. Wheeler’s report also found the hat is not in Lincoln’s size, meaning he could not have worn it.
Harris said she sits on a committee of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum’s board, complimented Wheeler’s work, saying she’d heard of no complaints of his performance. She said she couldn’t say whether Wheeler’s departure was related to his report. “When people say we’re going to go in a different direction, that means nothing,” she said. “It’s words strung together that don’t mean diddly squat.
“Dr. Wheeler was never informed of any performance issues, and from my understanding of the facts, what he did was what he was asked to do,” said Springfield attorney Carl Draper, who represented Wheeler. “He wrote the reports he was asked to and he tried to fulfill his obligations that relate to his job duties.”
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
Contributor, Smithsonian Magazine
Contributor, The State Journal Register