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Daggers in Their Hair: The Gilded Age Women Who Fought Off Gropers with Deadly Sharp Hatpins

For the early part of the 20th century, it was their main source of self-defense — until city councils and cops across the country decided these women were violent menaces of society who needed to surrender their fashion-forward shivs

The Hatpin Peril began harmlessly enough. At the end of the 19th century, women’s hats, borrowing from fashion trends in Europe, had grown larger and larger, reaching nearly comical proportions. As such, they were often adorned with long needles. “The hatpins are 20 inches long and bristling out like quills from the fretful porcupine … [and] made sharp and long, with heads like stiletto handles and points like the tips of a Mafia knife,” the Oregonian Daily Journal described in 1909.

At the same time, the end of the Gilded Age brought about great social change. For the first time, young American women were permitted to walk city streets unaccompanied, and many were joining the workforce and engaging in public life like never before. Unfortunately, these women also became targets for “mashers,” or men who harassed, groped or yelled at them on the street. Women, in turn, used whatever they could to fend off mashers — an umbrella, a parasol, even a lunch box. But the best weapon they had was hidden above their head. 

Case in point: In 1898, Sadie Williams was on a streetcar at night in Chicago, with only a few other passengers on the tram, when two men climbed aboard and attempted to rob the conductor. But the conductor resisted and a furious battle ensued, during which Williams slid a hatpin out from her hat and armed herself. “She lunged at the nearest robber,” the book The Hatpin Menace: American Women Armed and Fashionable by Kerry Segrave describes. “He screamed, released the conductor and turned on Sadie, who attacked him again. He quit the fight at that point and fled the car. Sadie then struck the other robber in the cheek with her hatpin. When the half-dazed conductor came to his senses, there was only Sadie and one passenger left on the car. The other passengers and robbers had all fled. Sadie replaced her hat, asked the conductor if he was all right and then promptly fainted. She was revived and escorted home.”

When a newspaperman asked Williams what came over her, she replied, “All I thought of was helping him. The only weapon I could think of was my hatpin, and as soon as I could, I jerked it out of my hat and jabbed it into the robber nearest me.”

There was also the young woman who, in 1895, traveled from San Francisco to New York City to study art. When she rode the subways into the city from Newark, she was shocked by the behavior of the East Coast mashers. “Of course you know that a woman can’t go about alone with any degree of comfort when she gets away from western chivalry,” she told a reporter. “I had a bookful of unpleasant experiences before I learned the magic power of that simple little hatpin.”

Meanwhile, in 1909, the Oregonian Daily Journal recounted an attack on a cop by 19-year-old Kate Vogel. After resisting arrest, Vogel “hurled herself upon him, with her hatpin as a weapon, and the outcome of the struggle was that both she and her captor went to the nearest hospital, he dangerously stabbed in a number of places, she exhausted by her efforts.” The same newspaper also detailed a fight in Long Island City between two young women, May Rogers and Mabel Mathias, who “quarreled and drew their hatpins for a duel, as the gallants of old drew swords and dirks. A desperate battle followed, until Miss Rogers was stabbed in the cheek, just below the eye, and an inch of the weapon was broken off in her face.”

By 1910, though, news stories had fully switched from brave tales of folk heroes like Williams fending off street criminals into hand-wringing over armed women slashing faces. “How to muzzle the hatpin?” the Gadsden Daily Times asked in 1912. “It’s another case of where theory confronts condition, and theory is irretrievably vanquished.” As headlines changed, so too did public opinion — and a moral panic ensued. Soon, calls for lawmakers to outlaw hatpins spread across America, and even through Europe.

Oregon Daily Journal, September 26, 1909

In 1910, Chicago’s City Council held a debate over a proposed new ordinance to disarm women of their hatpins. “The City Council of Chicago tonight decided it would be inexpedient to attempt at present to regulate the length of women’s hatpins by law,” the Norwich Bulletin reported. The new law would be enforced by “imposing a penalty of $50 on any woman caught wearing a hatpin which extended more than one-half of an inch beyond the crown of the hat.” 

But Chicago aldermen didn’t anticipate the uproar that would result from the proposed ban. “Scores of women, who had argued that hatpins were women’s only means of defense when going home on dark nights, filled the galleries tonight when the measure came up,” the Norwich Bulletin article continued. One alderman tried to argue, “This long hatpin nuisance has been thoroughly threshed out, and we are all agreed that it shall stop.” To which, the galleries of women rained down dissenting chants of, “Shame! shame!”

As Karen Abbott described for The Smithsonian in 2014, a woman named Nan Davis asked to speak. “If the men of Chicago want to take the hatpins away from us, let them make the streets safe,” she said. “No man has a right to tell me how I shall dress and what I shall wear.” Despite their pleas, shouts and speeches, Chicago passed its ordinance, and women’s long hatpins were banned locally.

Authorities quickly learned, however, that the ban would prove difficult to enforce. Chicago cops didn’t want to get into the business of checking women’s hats for weapons because they didn’t seem to see the same threat, so women carried on with their hatpins per usual. As the Gadsden Daily Times reported in 1912, the new law “was enacted for the benefit of humanity, but so far humanity has not greatly benefitted, for the maids and matrons of the Windy City have calmly ignored the existence of the statute.” The Chicago police chief was “sorely puzzled, but he thinks that he has evolved a scheme that will bring relief for the travelers on crowded trolley cars and the pedestrians of State Street.” 

“I will organize a ‘beauty squad’ of 20 attractive society and club women of Chicago to aid in the enforcement of the new ordinance,” he told the press. 

Soon, new civic codes against hatpins popped up in cities like Milwaukee, Baltimore and New Orleans as well as overseas in Berlin and Paris. Out west in Oakland, the local Tribune championed the war on women’s hatpins. “The days of the deadly hatpin are numbered!” an article published on Christmas Day 1910 boasted. “Throughout the length and breadth of the land, hat-pinned heads are bowed in shame. War without quarter has been declared upon women’s most virtuous ornament.” 

The San Francisco Examiner, March 11, 1900

But as befuddled as certain law enforcement agencies seemed to be with the new bans, some judges were even more confused. In St. Louis, one told a woman that she never should have been brought into his court. “I think you were justified in using the hatpin on him. If you had stabbed him a few times more I believe you would have done right.” He added, “I believe that a woman is justified in using her hatpin in self-defense. A hatpin may be an ugly and even a dangerous weapon, but I hardly think that it would come under the legal nomenclature of ‘deadly weapon.’”

Oregon Daily Journal, October 31, 1909

Suffragists raised the loudest calls against the hatpin panic, arguing that the ordinances penalized women for their newfound independence and fuller participation in public life by making them vulnerable to harassment and unwanted advances from mashers. They suggested that mashers change their behavior and adjust to the new world instead. Their pleas mainly fell on deaf ears. “A long bold stare is, of course, annoying to most women, but the man who won’t take a good look at a pretty woman as she passes on the street doesn’t know what eyes are for,” a 1903 newspaper editorial maintained. 

The moral panic eventually lost its tight grip on society — not because street harassment subsided, but rather, women’s fashion trends turned over much faster than social change could progress. The San Francisco Call noted the winds changing as early as 1911, with the arrival of a new style of hat that lay flat against the head: “The Suffragette, the Billy Burke, the Ding-Dong, the Ding-a-Ling and the Tyrolean, all of these new creations are being worn without hatpins.”

As for the mashers and politicians, they moved on to restricting women’s mobility and freedom in other ways, while finding new scapegoats to focus their scorn. “Heavens surely will have to protect the working girl now. She can’t protect herself,” the Herald Press mocked in 1924. “Like female Sampsons shorn of their strength, the women of the present have been reft of their trusty hatpins. It is another evil wrought by the prevalent and pernicious reign of bobbed hair.”

The editorial went on to ask, “The burning question is — what are they going to do now? What will take the place of the hatpin in the feminine warfare? Will they learn jiu jitsu? Will they take up boxing? Will they begin gun toting?” 

This, of course, was meant to be a joke. But it inadvertently turned out to be far more prescient than funny.