The Real Reason Abraham Lincoln Wore A Top Hat

In 1797, John Hetherington was supposedly arrested for causing a riot on the streets due to his headwear, which was described as "a tall structure having a shiny luster and calculated to frighten timid people," per Medium. Based on the description, would you have guessed they're talking about a top hat? Probably not, and this story may not have happened at all, as there are no credible validations of the alleged incident. However, this is the story most commonly told when talking about the invention of the top hat.

The top hat became a popular fashion accessory in the mid-1800s and was often worn by influential, wealthy men in society's upper class. Back then, the top hat was made of beaver fur, as the material held up even under the rain, per The Conversation. The beaver fur, however, made it expensive. Later on, other alternatives, such as rabbit fur, were used, which made the hats less costly. Soon after, wearing top hats wasn't only for the rich; middle- and lower-class citizens also had access to the tall, cylindrical head accessory.

One of the famous figures associated with the top hat was President Abraham Lincoln, often seen sporting different types of the fashion accessory throughout his years in office.

President Lincoln's most famous top hat

There are no accounts of when Abraham Lincoln started wearing top hats, but during his presidential inauguration in 1860, he wore one, per Smithsonian Magazine. Lincoln was known to wear top hats that had a height of 7 to 8 inches, making the already-tall man, who stood at 6 feet, 4 inches, even taller. Even on the night of his assassination at the Ford Theatre in 1865, Lincoln wore a top hat that he acquired from hatmaker J.Y. Davis. A black silk band was on the base of the hat to symbolize his mourning for his son Willie, who had died in 1862.

Harold Holzer, an Abraham Lincoln biographer, said that Lincoln had several reasons for wearing a top hat. "They protected him against inclement weather, served as storage bins for important papers he stuck inside their lining, and further accentuated his great height advantage over other men," he said, per Smithsonian.

The War Department preserved the top hat Lincoln wore when he was assassinated, and it was first seen by the public in 1893 with permission from his wife Mary. It is considered one of the most prized objects of the Smithsonian Institution to this day, per the National Museum of American History.