Early Animal Rights: The Hats For Horses Crusade

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1902 AD Horse Hats TiIf you like horses (and who doesn’t?) and some funny grammatical errors, check out these two sentence segments from regional newspapers. From 1927: “Mounted on his favorite and favored horse wearing a white broad-brimmed hat … ; and from 1980: “Fans hurled confetti at third baseman George Brett, who was atop a horse wearing a grey cowboy hat.” Both excerpts contain misplaced modifiers: it’s a pretty safe bet that neither horse was wearing a hat.

But as silly as it sounds, it’s an idea that was actually once in vogue. About a century ago, many of northern New York’s horses were sporting the latest craze―hats for horses.

In parts of Europe and the West Indies, it had long been a practice for operators of hacks―horse-drawn taxis, carriages, and the like―to bedeck their horses with hats, which minimized the wearing effects of the hot sun during long days of strolling the streets.

And the hats didn’t just provide shade. They were routinely used as a cooling system by placing a water-soaked sponge in the crown. As long as it was refreshed frequently, the sponge provided a measure of cool relief from hauling heavy loads in high temperatures. And some folks thought the hats looked fashionably cool as well.

In America, animal protection groups had gained a foothold by the late 1800s, and at the turn of the century, their efforts to similarly outfit the nation’s working horses received plenty of media coverage. The Humane Society of Washington fought for the cause in the capital, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) spearheaded the drive nationwide.

Success was gradual, but in summer 1901, the idea caught fire. In New York City, Boston, and other metropolitan areas, horse hats were selling like the proverbial hotcakes. The demand far outpaced the supply, prompting manufacturers to ramp up production schedules.

In early July, the Utica Observer reported that one store sold 150 in less than an hour, and that 2000 horses had received hats in the past few days. From cities, the idea spread to the countryside. Stores from Ticonderoga to Watertown added horse hats to their inventories.

Although farmers were less likely to join the craze, many workhorses of the North Country’s fields and roadways were soon stylin’ on the job. For plowing and other long, hot tasks, horses were dressed in a larger version of the common straw hat that had long been a fixture on farmers’ heads across the country. The horse straw hats had high crowns, allowing plenty of room for cooling sponges, and dangling red ribbons, which were tied below the horse’s head to hold the hat securely in place.

In cities, though, it was a different story. Just as hats in the North Country were reflective of rural dress modes, city horses were soon bedecked in all manner of colorful bonnets and hat styles. The Boston Transcript described the fast-growing city market: “In smartness of style, these hats scarcely differ from madam’s hat except that there are holes in the brim on each side for the horse’s ears.”

Napoleon's bicorne WIKIOne Ogdensburg reporter noted, “Hats for horses are rather a novelty, but in other places, the hatless animal is the one that attracts attention.” Another joked, “Is there not a danger that the horses which are wearing hats just now will demand ear mufflers this winter?”

The hats did become ubiquitous for a while, but the trend’s impact on draft animals in northern New York peaked between 1898 and 1905. After all, what field-plowing, log-hauling, self-respecting steed of a ton or more would be caught dead in one? Only Mr. Ed could pull off something like that.

And you have to wonder: did hatted horses have their own version of the “Help Me!” look that so often appears on the faces of dressed-up dogs? Hmmm … sounds like more work for the animal protection folks. But then again, they were the ones putting hats on horses in the first place.

Humane societies continued to cite the practice as helpful to working horses, but the focus was generally on the most visible animals, which were those used to haul taxis and carriages in cities. Many farm horses sported straw hats during the fad, but country folk continued using periodic breaks, shade, and plenty of water, the time-tested methods of keeping their animals cool and happy.

For a closing chuckle, how about one more horse-related misplaced modifier? This one appeared in a 1986 article in St. Lawrence County about Cape Vincent’s French Festival, an event linked to Napoleon’s family members who settled there. “The celebration features a … parade, led by [Charles] Aubrey atop a horse dressed as the French ruler.” Which begs the question: Why would a horse dress like Napoleon?

If it did, let’s hope it was wearing a bicorne (the two-cornered hat favored by Bonaparte).

Photos: Advertisement in Ticonderoga Sentinel (1902); Napoleon in his bicorne (from Wikipedia).

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