The Hat-Pin : Fashionably Dangerous

While hat-pins are no longer considered a necessary finishing touch on our ensembles today, for women in the 19th century, and until the popularity of the close-fitting cloche hats of the 1920s, they certainly were!

Hat-Pin Girl by Charles Dana Gibson, ca. 1905, Public domain

Hat styles changed continuously, reaching their most dramatic proportions in the early Edwardian era, around 1910. The hat-pins this post concerns are those shaped like a long needle. This would have pierced the back or side of the hat material (like a needle threaded through fabric), grabbed the hair of the wearer underneath for stability, and then pierced through the hat again with the middle of the pin covered by the hat material. This simple method secured the hat to the wearer’s head and left both ends of the pin exposed, which provided an opportunity for embellishment.

A high-fashion hat-pin and its box by Cartier. Platinum, sapphires, diamonds, 1910, France, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum / Public domain

A hat-pin could be a luxurious finishing touch or an innocuous practical measure, but they could even be used as a weapon in a pinch! More like a needle than a knife, hat pins could still inflict damage if necessary. There are actually accounts of hat-pins used as a weapon and it was alluded to in many films and stories.

Particularly around 1900-1912, hat-pins were used as a defense tool against a type of leering, aggressive male known as a “masher.” The hats worn during this period had reached enormous proportions, so it followed that a large hat-pin would be necessary to secure the millinery. More and more women in this period also began to enter public life unchaperoned. This was emboldened, in part, by the independence that developed out of the biking craze of the 1890s. Venturing out alone, women needed to be able to protect themselves on the street and while using public transportation. There were many news stories that told of unaccompanied women in public that used hat-pins to ward off unwanted attention, or that felt safer going out unaccompanied knowing they could use a hat-pin if needed. Much the same way you might carry pepper spray today.

Hat-pin, late 19th century, American, likely glass and silver, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 1938-58-1207 / Public domain

In 1919, an ad for a film called “Bare Fists” teased viewers with the catch phrase “If Men Use Their Bare Fists to Fight Life’s Battles, Should Women Resort to the Hat-pin?” [1]

Still from the American western film Bare-Fisted Gallagher (1919) with Agnes Vernon and William Desmond, on page 1750 of the June 21, 1919 Moving Picture World, Jesse D. Hampton Productions / Exhibitors Mutual.

Many felt this was a handy weapon that could aid women in need of a defense, and the fear of its use was referred to as “The Hatpin Peril.” [You can read more about this international threat in the Smithsonian’s article here] [You can also read more about the hat-pin as a defense tool in this article by Atlas Obscura]

Keep reading to see examples of the hat-pin-turned-weapon as referenced in films, a ballad, and actual stories in the news from this period!

Hat-pin Defense, 1904, San Francisco Sunday Call

The Hat-pin in Film:

Desperate Dud

Desparate Dud
Kalem Company Inc., 1915, New York: Kalem Company Inc., Museum of Modern Art Library, New York, Media History Digital Library

The photo above is a publicity shot for the silent film and burlesque comedy, Desparate Dud, The Plumber. Two men fall for the same woman, Lizzie, and one tries to stick his rival with a hat-pin but mistakenly stabs Lizzie instead! A comedic fight ensues with Lizzie bearing the worst of the misfires.

The House of Silence

In this film, released by Paramount in 1918, a hat-pin is used as a murder weapon!

House of Silence
The House of Silence, 1918, film poster, Paramount

Much of this dramatic film revolves around a heroine (Ann Little), caught in unfortunate circumstances, who kills a lawyer with a hat-pin. Two men walking along the street run into the heroine, who is distressed, and visit the scene of the crime. One of the lead men conceals the small wound that was inflicted upon the dead lawyer and hides the hat-pin from his male friend, but his friend is suspicious and finds the hat-pin-turned-weapon and the truth is uncovered.

Sharp and Dangerous as a Hat-Pin

John Elleridge Chandos, The Life-Saver, ca. 1911, The Motion Picture Publishing Co., Library of Congress National Audio Visual Conservation Center, Media History Digital Library, 121.

The photo summary above found in Motion Picture Story Magazine, provides a synopsis of the film The Life-Saver for readers. It describes the character Jessica’s cleverness as “sharp and dangerous as a hat-pin.” The image below shows Jessica (far left) wearing a hat, typical of the Edwardian period when this was written, that could have benefited from the security of a hat-pin.

John Elleridge Chandos, The Life-Saver, ca. 1911, The Motion Picture Publishing Co., Library of Congress National Audio Visual Conservation Center, Media History Digital Library, 122.

Hat-Pin Ballad

Moriz Jung (Austrian (born Czechoslovakia) Moravia 1885–1915 Manilowa (Carpathians)) Hatpin Ballad (Hutnadelballade), 1911 Austrian, Color lithograph; Sheet: 5 1/2 × 3 9/16 in. (14 × 9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art transferred from the Library (WW.360)

This Austrian Ballad above shows a woman dangerously armed with the hat-pins securing her comically large hat (large even by Edwardian standards). Viewed as carrying a dangerous weapon, she is disarmed by the policeman.

Hat-Pin Weaponry in the News

A Kansas Visitor Had Enough

Hat-Pin in Kansas
“Stuck Hatpin Into A Masher, The Evening World, May 27, 1903, Night Edition, Page 3, Image 3, New York

The caption within this illustration speaks for itself! The title of this article in 1903 is “Stuck Hatpin into a Masher: Kansas Girl Gave an Elderly Exponent of the ‘Goo-Goo Eye’ a Hard Jab in a Fifth Avenue Coach.” The man appeared to be annoyed but not seriously injured. He left the coach after being stuck with the hat-pin. Miss Leoti Baker of Kansas said the hat-pin was “without equal” as a means of defense. The article paints her in a positive light, as an innocent, pretty tourist who resorted to the means necessary to protect herself from unwanted male attention. 

Mary Pickford Attacked

Mary Pickford
“Attacks Mary Pickford,” 1917, Motography, vol. 18, no. 7, 360, Library of Congress, MBRS, Moving Image Section, Media History Digital Library.

Not a film, but involving a film star, this article in Motography was an actual account of actress Mary Pickford attacked by a furious maid. Apparently, her maid was unhappy at her dismissal by Pickford and attacked her with a long hat-pin. The writer claims Pickford was rescued by her chauffeur.

Mary Pickford in the film, A Little Princess, 1917, Directed by Marshall Neilan and screenplay by Francis Marion.

New Jersey Barbarians

NJ Barbarians
“New Jersey Barbarians,” Feb. 3, 1900, The San Francisco Dramatic Review, p.3, California State Library, Media History Digital Library.

In another news story, titled “New Jersey Barbarians,” found in The San Francisco Dramatic Review, a hat-pin was used as a weapon against aggressive audience members! 

In New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1900, some men in the audience of a vaudeville show felt that they were promised more promiscuity than was shown and tried to get “their money’s worth” by rushing up to the stage. The women fled to their dressing room and were chased by the men. As the women tried to exit the theater they were caught by the men who tore at their costumes. One woman used a hat-pin “savagely” in her defense. Luckily, policemen later arrived and escorted the women to safety.

The Hat-Pin Defense Tool

These are just a few examples of the hat-pin as a defense tool. There are many more accounts and examples of hat-pins used as a weapon in film, literature, and newspaper articles! Understandably, an unaccompanied woman in the Edwardian era probably felt safer knowing that she had an acceptable tool at her disposal as she entered life outside of the domestic sphere. Hat-pin designs were plentiful and varied greatly to suit women of all social classes. It was a stylish and fashionable way to defend in a time of need, and as evidenced by many true accounts, plenty of women did just that!

Archeological-revival Hat-pin ca. 1880, Italian, gold, steel, and platinum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.406 / CC0

-Danielle Morrin

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Other great articles on this topic can be found online here:

Smithsonian Magazine

The Evening World

Atlas Obscura

[1] “Wid’s Daily: Putting it Over,” June 1919, Wid’s Films and Film Folks, Inc., p. 4, Media History Digital Library.


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