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Column: Hat's the way it was around town many years ago

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By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — In the flood of John Kennedy features in newspapers and on television last month, the 1960 Wisconsin White House primary was reviewed several times. JFK vs Hubert Humphrey. It was said if Humphrey could not beat Kennedy in Wisconsin, among his neighbors, HHH would be an also-ran. Humphrey lost.

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Fuggedaboudit. The 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary is a crumb of history not worth remembering. Except: there was one historic development in Wisconsin that remains a big part of American life today.

As the TV accounts reminded, HHH campaigned in Wisconsin wearing his fedora. Every man was wearing a fedora. Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, Lt. Gov. Karl Rolvaag. Even the Kennedy men — Kenny O’Donnell and the Irish Mafia — were wearing fedoras in that chill Wisconsin air. JFK himself, with that remarkable head of thick, neat hair, went everywhere with no hat of any kind. There is no more familiar image from America’s first encounters with Kennedy than JFK in his top coat, bareheaded.

By the time of the West Virginia primary, Hubert Humphrey also was campaigning bareheaded. It was the beginning of the end for men and hats.

You may not know what a fedora is. It has been a while since we have seen one. A fedora is a felt hat with a crown that was nearly always creased at top center and, often, had an indent or a dimple on either side at the front. The crown was encircled by a brim that usually was turned down in front. There was a silk or satin band that circled the base of the crown where it joined the brim.

Fedoras. Let me tell you: walk down Worthington’s 10th Street from — oh, 1920 to maybe 1980 — you couldn’t find a man without a fedora. Go to a Kiwanis meeting and there were fedoras hanging like apples from racks that were placed at the doorway for that purpose. Go to church and fedoras were piled high on shelves in the narthex. When a farmer would buy a new hat he would wear the old fedora in his fields, maybe with a stain from hair oil around the base of the crown.

You wonder what influence John Kennedy had on America: John Kennedy got every man in the country eventually to toss away his hat.

Abraham Lincoln was a stovepipe man, a topper man, a high hat man. A stovepipe worn by Lincoln is on display at the Lincoln museum at Springfield, Ill. From the time of Lincoln to the time of JFK, every U.S. president wore a stovepipe hat at his inauguration. Lyndon Johnson went to his inauguration bareheaded, and that was the end of stove pipes.

Early photos from the local area show men in derby hats — hats with a stiff, rounded crown. A dome. George Dayton might be seen wearing a derby, but derbys were not only for the elite. Find a photo of men in a saloon and nearly everyone one of them will have a derby.

Then came the fedora. Oh, and in the summers, even in the Depression, there are photos of men strolling sidewalks with their boaters, their straw katies, rigid straw hats with a flat crown and a brim. Also men in flat, floppy caps. There always have been men who preferred caps.

Cross the playground at Worthington Grade School in the fedora era — you would find some boys with flat caps but mostly with stocking caps pulled down over their ears, some of them home-knitted. A few beanies. There would be a kid or two with a soft leather helmet, straps flapping on either side of his face, goggles resting on his forehead. The Charles Lindbergh influence, an aviator’s helmet.

Then came the baseball cap, no matter that it might say Farmer’s Co-op or Union Pacific across the front. Every man a Babe Ruth. Or a Joe Mauer. It became popular to wear a baseball cap as a catcher’s cap with the bill at the back of the neck.

Oh — and like women in another age — men began wearing their caps everywhere, at the dinner table as at the auction.

2013. Bare your head. Be a Kennedy. Pretend you don’t notice the wind.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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