Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat


Image courtesy of: http://galleryhip.com/lincoln-top-hat.html

The top hat worn by president Lincoln has grown to be one of the best selling presidential commodities. The hat itself was popular before its residence on Lincoln’s head (some people theorized it was stuck), in the early 1800’s. During the 17th-century, the hat had become a symbol of authority/prestige which some historians believe could have influenced Lincoln’s early political career, in which, it was theorized to be used as a gimmick [1]. It is interesting to see just how it was used as a gimmick, as it added a few more inches to his already staggering figure. He still stands as the tallest president in the Unites States of America at six foot four. At that time, and even today, he stood out from the crowd–towering over them. It adds to the psychology gospel [6] that the taller you are, the more authority you seem to have. My discussion of height and authority is in fact addressing the larger matter of usable memory. American voters at the time of Lincoln’s presidential campaign made the connection with height and authority, which then leaded to the association with leadership and Lincoln–which is what America so desperately needed for the new presidency (and any presidential term for that matter). Quite literally, the gimmick was part of a political trajectory scheme. Using the political traditions that are validated by a stable past and using them to now show the stability and power that Lincoln wanted to represent.

We see that that the top hat has gone through the process of processual memory, as Lincoln has taken what was already popularized through the meaning of prestige and made it his very own meaning. In other words, when people today think about the the traditional top hat, they associate it with Abraham Lincoln. And so we see capitalism at its best using the processual process to its advantage and selling it to the ever growing demand. The top hat is reaching the commercial uses and commodified dimension of memory. Now attaching itself to something concrete though materialized memory. Businesses or even common folk are using the history of the top hat for profit. The historical memories are less commemorated via service or acknowledgement and are instead observed by buying more products. To take a case in point, see just how the top hat is being advertised in this eBay [3] ad tittle, “Black Magician Felt Arbaham Lincoln Tall Gentlemen Top Hat Costume G2102” Note: the seller of this item did spell Abraham wrong [3].

bill murray

Multi-demential five dollar bill; image in courtesy of: elitedaily.com

Here, we are taking a look at the different ways the top hat is being commercialized to make sure it covers all the possible needs of the consumer. The hat is used for a number of different purposes such as for impersonating and adopting images such as: magicians, the “English look,” the “Victoria gentleman look,” and for the “Abraham Lincoln look.” By extension this makes the hat more of a universal use for consumers rather than the particular community interested in a costume of Lincoln. So too the multi-demential collective memory Americans believe of Abraham Lincoln. Specifically, the five prominent images, which include: Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator, Man of the People, First American, and Self-Made Man–all can be impersonated by wearing the top hat [4]. Almost taking on a new idea of collapsed commemorating a material object. Robert Wuthnow agrees when he writes, “we can never know what objects mean to individuals; we can only know how these objects relate to one another…” [4].


Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union Image courtesy of: http://www.cooper.edu

As the biographer Harold Holzer pointed out, Lincoln actually bought a new silk top hat the very same day he gave his famous speech [7] at the Cooper Institute in New York in February of 1860. The point in the map shows just where he bought the hat at the Knox Great Hat and Cap at 212 Broadway [1]. This site to me is very interesting because there is very little information on it. Yet, it was a vital piece to the successful puzzle Lincoln was trying to built before making the speech that would win him the election (probably the most important speech of his life). Studies have indicated just how nervous he was before the speech. It is not clear, however, that this conclusion implies why he tok the tour of New York beforehand, in which, he might have needed to clear his mind before. Nevertheless he found the time to stop by Knox Great Hat and Cap to buy a silk hat. Actually, if you look at WHERE he was making the speech, it was no other than the fashion-conscious New York. Much to Lincoln’s embarrassment, his suit was reported to be “ill-fitted and ceased,” and his boots “cramping” his feet. It only makes sense that he goes on to buy a new hat instead of a new suit! We need to take a step back again and see just how important hats were to Lincoln. They protected him against inclement weather, served as storage bins for the prominent papers he stuck inside their lining, and, to reiterate once more, emphasize his great height advantage over other men [5].

Today, the top hat that Lincoln continued to popularize is being commercialized in the form of costumes. I have a link showing a website working with other third parties in selling top hats [3]. Why only purchase a hat when you can get the whole costume and actually BE Abraham Lincoln?

 Works Cited:

[1] EBSCO Host Lincoln’s Top Hat: http://vb3lk7eb4t.search.serialssolutions.com/?genre=article&isbn=&issn=00377333&title=Smithsonian&volume=41&issue=7&date=20131101&atitle=LINCOLN%27S%20TOP%20HAT.&aulast=Carter,%20Stephen%20L.&spage=48&sid=EBSCO:Academic%20Search%20Premier&pid=

[2] Costume website: http://www.abrahamlincolncostumes.com/

[3] eBay page selling the top hat:  http://www.ebay.com/itm/Black-Magician-Felt-Arbaham-Lincoln-Tall-Gentlemen-Top-Hat-Costume-G2102-/251635507555?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item3a96a52163O:Academic%20Search%20Premier&pid=

[4] AMST 384 class article: Barry Schwartz and Howard Schurman, “History, Commemoration, and Belief: Abraham Lincoln in American Memory, 1945-2001,” American Sociological Review 7 (April 2005): 183-203.

[5] Book addressing the Cooper Union speech:  Holzer, Harold. Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005. 40-52. Print.

[6] Here I added a hyperlink about an article posted by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Malcolm Gladwell. It talks a little bit about the psychology behind the authority and why we perceive it to be a means of authority: http://gladwell.com/blink/why-do-we-love-tall-men/

[7] Here is a link for more information about the importance of the Cooper Union speech Lincoln gave from the University of Michigan Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0026.207/–lincoln-at-cooper-union-the-speech-that-made-abraham-lincoln?rgn=main;view=fulltext

4 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln’s Top Hat

  1. Emma Miller

    I think this is an extremely interesting analysis of Lincoln’s top hat. The top hat is such a dominant memory associated with Lincoln but the further connection you made between the top hat and authority is not something I would immediately think of. You tie class concepts very well to this iconic Lincoln artifact. The only suggestion I have is to maybe add in some hyperlinks so your site becomes more interactive and live!

    1. Jorge Vallecillo Post author

      Thanks Emma for your comment! I took your suggestion of adding hyperlinks to make my site more interactive, and, well, I added some!

  2. Sam Euler

    This was a very entertaining post, andyYour pictures are awesome! I agree with Emma. I think that the inclusion of hyperlinks did a lot not only for your post’s interactiveness but also for its content. However, in addition to the hyperlinks, I think your post would benefit a lot from giving just a little bit of context for the links. For example, when you mention Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, it might be useful to provide just a sentence or two of background info, like why he’s giving the speech or what the speech was about. The other hyperlink would benefit even more from context also, as some people may not know about Malcom Gladwell and the psychology gospel. My favorite section of the post is when you discuss how the hat was originally used as a gimmick. I think you could even see improvement if you just research that more in depth, like when did the top hat first appear in Lincoln memory? when did it become serious? If it was used as a gimmick, how did it turn serious and how did that turn effect collective memory of Lincoln?

    1. Jorge Vallecillo Post author

      Thanks for the post Sam. I just added more information about the context of Malcom Glaldwell, psychology gospel, and the Cooper union speech below my works cited. I did not want to dwell too much on these because it was not the focus of the post, however, I added great sites on the hyperlinks for more information if anyone wants to learn more about it.

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