It should come as no surprise that, when it comes to blatant misogyny, sexual assault, and street harassment, not much has changed in the past…well, since ever. Nowadays, women have several options when it comes to personal protection. We carry pepper spray, mace, turn our car keys into weapons, take martial arts classes, and can use our cell phones to snap pictures of offending jackholes.
Today, we call them jackholes. Creeps. Stalkers. Back in the day, women called them mashers. A masher, according to this account in a 1914 issue of The Scranton Truth, was “just a plain cad…a coward, too, for he knows that an unescorted girl can only express her resentment by ignoring him.”
But even in the early twentieth century, it wasn’t quite true that women could only express resentment by ignoring these mashers. They may not have had pepper spray, but they did have one thing in their favor – something they all carried, and that was significantly more deadly than most anything modern women keep in their purses.
Around the turn of the 20th century, advertising was on the rise, which meant advertisers were targeting women with an array of consumer goods. Among them? Hats. Huge, elaborate hats perched atop even more huge, elaborate hairstyles were the must-have item of the day. The towering monstrosities were crafted from taffeta, silk, ribbons, flowers (real and fake), feathers (some birds were hunted nearly to extinction for hat feathers), birds (stuffed, I’m almost positive), and even artificial fruit.
As you can imagine, ladies required some special hardware in order to affix these fashionable items to their silky tresses.
Enter the hatpin.
If you’re picturing those cardboard sheets of hairpins you can buy by the hundred at the drug store, think again. The 20th century hatpin was nothing short of a weapon – it was made of sturdy metal and could be up to 9 inches long (or longer, depending on the style).
Men, mashers and otherwise, began to take notice as tales of assault-by-hatpin began flooding the nation. There were innocent injuries sustained in crowded train cars or on busy streets – or, perhaps, as as actual suitor went in for a goodnight kiss. But it didn’t take long for women to realize they had at their disposal (finally) a way to convince society’s undesirables (read: their assailants) to back the hell off.
Though even intentional injuries tended to not be considered serious, a stick to the hand or other sensitive area was painful…and an effective deterrent.
Several newspaper accounts of the day attest to the efficiency of the tool in thwarting crime: a burglar detained, train robbers run off by a “plucky typewriter,” to name just a few. But, like today, men were the ones (officially) running society, and they were not fans of the fashion accessories – the hats or the pins.
The hats were a nuisance to others trying to see over or around them in a theatre, church, concert, and so on. Even more concerning were the accidental injuries I mentioned, with (relatively) innocent men suffering scratches and eye injuries in an time when infections could easily turn deadly. There was even one reported incident of murder-by-hatpin.
Legislation was introduced to curb what men felt was an unfair epidemic of injury and fear – an ‘epidemic’ that was the result of women being able to actually feel safe when out alone. Cities like Chicago, Kansas City, Hamburg, Paris, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans all passed ordinances that limited hatpins’ length and/or required the pointed ends to be sheathed in public.
Women were furious, often refusing to abide by the laws or pay the fines they incurred. 60 Australian women were arrested and jailed in 1912 for refusing to submit to laws they felt were “iniquitous and unnecessary.” The popularity of the hatpin also coincided with the rise of women’s suffrage movements worldwide, fueling the idea that women had the right to walk safely and un-accosted on the streets (gasp!).
In many places, the laws made little or no difference, as author Kerry Segrave (The Hatpin Menace: American Woman Armed and Fashionable, 1887-1920) points out:
“Even when this was accomplished, the police were said to be too bashful to approach women in the streets to enforce those laws. Men were genuinely trepidatious about taking public transit, as all those protruding hatpins threatened and endangered them.”
A 1917 Chicago Day Book article concluded that, instead of arresting women, men should just “try and see that they all get a seat so they won’t have to swing around on a strap.” You know, for safety’s sake.
How chivalrous, right? Swooooon.
Large hats eventually went out of style (oddly enough due in no small part to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made illegal the trade of feathers and plumage used in many of the fine creations), and hatpins went with them. Which may have been good for the mashers, but left women again largely undefended on mass transit and public streets.
But hey, the man were safe and happy. Isn’t that all that ever matters?
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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