In A Nutshell
Fashion accessories aren’t usually dangerous, but in the early 1900s, the media was comparing the incredibly sharp, incredibly dangerous, foot-long hatpin to firearms. Women were using the hatpins to defend themselves against molestation and unwanted advances, but they were also accidentally injuring—even killing—innocent people with their hatpins. It wasn’t long before it became completely legal to arrest a woman for wearing an illegal hatpin. By the time World War I started, though, the whole thing had died down a bit—and when fashions changed, no one was wearing hatpins any more for any reason.
The Whole Bushel
Hatpins have been around since the Middle Ages, when they were used to securely hold coverings over women’s hair. It was a sign of modesty, but by the time hatpins were declared a public menace, they had taken on a very different purpose.
They were, in theory, still used to hold a woman’s hat in place. By the turn of the 20th century, hats were huge, ungainly things that needed a lot of help to stay in place. Hats were an impressive bit of wardrobe, and the pins needed to hold them in place were just as huge.
By at least 1903, hatpins were taking on a whole new role—defense. For women now out and about, doing things like riding public transportation, it wasn’t unheard of for them to find themselves the uncomfortable victim of a “masher”—a fellow public transport rider who would take the opportunity given by the close quarters to sneak in a grope before going about his daily business.
Women were understandably fed up with it, and the hatpin became a defense.
They were nothing to laugh at, either. Hatpins were incredibly sturdy, incredibly pointed, and many were about 30 centimeters (12 in) long. Mashers that found themselves rubbing up against the wrong woman could also find they suddenly had a length of sharp metal plunged into their arm.
For the women who were able to successfully fend off sometimes violent attackers and sexual predators, it was a huge win. Those who did it were commended for their bravery and their resourcefulness. The focus of most media attention wasn’t on the weapon, how dangerous it was, or women overstepping boundaries, but the spotlight was put squarely on the inappropriate behavior that caused the retaliation on the first place.
But by 1909, hatpins had turned more dangerous than praiseworthy.
Accidents were common. In Scranton, a teenager accidentally killed her boyfriend with a poke from a hatpin, and the ordinary public transportation rider was also at risk. A young man on a streetcar in New York was poked by someone’s hatpin, and ultimately died after slipping into a coma from the head injury.
In 1912, the Chicago Police Department were well within their rights (and acting in accordance with an actual drafted and approved ordinance) to not only administer fines to women with hatpins that stuck out more than an inch from their actual hat, but to arrest them for it. They had been deemed a hazard to public safety, and a plethora of complaints made by people who had been injured by hatpins started a public outcry.
It’s wasn’t just in the United States, either. Cities like Paris, Hamburg, and as far away as Sydney, Australia saw hatpin ordinances pass, and women weren’t happy about it. At the same time, there were headlines about wives and mistresses facing off against each other in the streets, armed with hatpins. Sixty women were even arrested for refusing to pay the fines they’d gotten for wearing illegal hatpins.
There were attempts at making hatpins safer, including hatpin protectors that were designed to completely cover the dangerous accessories while keeping the same functionality that they were originally created for. Women refused to wear them, though, while newspapers were comparing the effects of hatpins to firearms.
The whole hatpin thing had kind of an anti-climactic resolutions. World War I happened, fashion changed, hats got smaller, and being a flapper became the more rebellious thing to do.
Show Me The Proof
Smithsonian: “The Hatpin Peril” Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman
American Hatpin Society: A Brief History of Hatpins
US Patent 1034316 A: Hatpin Protector
San Francisco Call: Police Cell Yawns For Chicago Women With Big Hat Pins
Note: The photo above is of Mrs. John Philip Sousa, taken in 1905. We couldn’t find a period photograph that clearly showed a hatpin, presumably because hatpins were largely meant to blend in with the hats.