Just an accessory? Maybe not. At a time when men’s hats spoke volumes about their personalities and status, Speaker Joseph Cannon’s headwear, including slouch hats, straw hats, and an “ancient woolly topper,” proved a potent symbol of his iron power, strong personality, and folksy manner.
A Representative from Illinois, Cannon served in the House for nearly 50 years, and was known as “Uncle Joe.” When he first came to Congress in 1873, he was given an authoritative-looking top hat made of beaver. Stiff and tall top hats, or toppers, were popular menswear in the 19th century, and signified prestige and power. As one story goes, when the inventor of the stovepipe hat, a dramatic type of topper, first walked down a London street in his towering, shiny headwear, the sight caused children to scream, women to faint, and riots to ensue. Though the stiff, formal topper worn by Cannon was smaller than the stovepipe hat, it still had the power to intimidate.
Originally, toppers were made of wool or felt, which incorporated expensive beaver, rabbit, or nutria fur. By the mid-19th century, cheaper, shiny silk fabric from China began to overtake fur as the most popular material for men’s headgear—but not for Uncle Joe. He staunchly declared that he had never worn, and would never wear, a silk hat. Cannon’s choice of headwear communicated a lot about him: a strong, uncompromising style made in a material that appeared a little old-fashioned for its time.
In the early 1900s, Cannon wore several other hats, including a fedora. Flexible headwear with a curved brim and a crease at the top, it was much less formal than the top hat, and became popular in the 1880s. But, the Detroit Free Press found Cannon’s chapeau too quirky, calling it “that funny little farce-comedy fedora.”
Cannon also used a number of hats he was gifted during his time in the House. After becoming Speaker in 1903, Uncle Joe received a mysterious package from a Filipino admirer. It turned out to be a beautifully made, reversible Manila hat, proclaimed to be the “finest straw hat in Washington.” Cannon planned to wear it in the summer, since the light straw material would suit him in hot weather. Three years later, the proprietor of a Charleston newspaper gave Cannon a warmer black wool hat with a very broad brim, in South Carolina style. Cannon, an ardent Republican, accepted the gift, but gruffly conjectured that “evidently they are trying to make a wool hat Democrat out of me.” (“Wool hat Democrat” was a colloquial term used to describe rural politicians whose hats were far less fancy and modern than their urban counterparts.)
During his unsuccessful 1908 presidential campaign, Cannon sported a black slouch hat with a floppier brim than the topper. Cannon particularly loved that headpiece because, as he explained, it had a nearly magical way of “lifting off” his head whenever he bowed to greet an audience. However, this quality also had its drawbacks: Once, while Uncle Joe rode a train through the Pennsylvania countryside, his “famous slouch hat” flew out the window. Spying a hat fly from the caboose, the train operator had a boy run to retrieve it. After seeing the name of the Speaker of the House written across the band, the operator dutifully sent the slouch hat to its owner in Washington. In appreciation for its return, Cannon mailed the boy a crisp one-dollar bill.
Later that year, Cannon lost his beloved slouch hat again—but this time, he blamed the opposition party. When his headwear went missing in Philadelphia, Cannon roared, “Guess some Democrat ‘swiped’ it at one of the meetings last night.” He sighed mournfully about the replacement fedora he had to wear: “I don’t know who ‘cribbed’ my hat, but I do know that this hat does not become me. Look at that greasy band. Ugh!”
After adventures with straw hats, wool hats, slouch hats, and stolen hats—but never, ever a silk hat—Cannon returned to his “ancient woolly topper,” wearing it back home from Congress. Uncle Joe kept his beaver top hat throughout his House tenure. Posing for one last photo before returning to Danville, Illinois, Cannon characteristically smoked a cigar while wearing his topper. The Greensboro Daily Record exclaimed: “Stogie tilted rakishly, wide hat cocked just a bit and always wearing a long-tailed coat, ‘Uncle Joe’ has long been one of America’s outstanding figures.”
Sources: Madeline Ginsburg, The Hat: Trends and Traditions (New York: Barrons, 1990); Hilda Amphlett, Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear (Chalfont St. Giles: Sadler, 1974); Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013); New York Tribune, October 28, 1908; Washington Post, January 27, 1908.Follow @USHouseHistory