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The many hats of Mayor James Michael Curley

May 8, 2017

Today's Archives' blog post is a guest post by urban historian Max Grinnell. Max visited the City Archives a few weeks ago to look at some of our artifacts and dig into their history.  

As an urban historian, visiting local archives in person is one way to examine and understand the urban condition. The objects in the archives, though many might not give them a second thought, form the basis for understanding a city’s governance, people, culture, infrastructure, and more.

On a recent visit to the Boston City Archives, I selected four items I found particularly compelling.  Here’s the first item I found, along with a few musings.

Mayor James Michael Curley’s Hat (One of them, at least)

Mayor James M. Curley's hat, Collection 0237.001

Do you wear a hat on a regular basis?

Let me rephrase: Do you wear a non-sporting hat on a regular basis?

I will guess that the answer is “No”. In our own time, dress hats are commonly worn only at special events, such as the Kentucky Derby, funerals, and perhaps an Easter Parade.

Boston’s own celebrated and controversial Mayor James Michael Curley wore many hats, literally and in terms of his various elected political offices. City of Boston archivist Marta Crilly brought his hat to my attention when I asked about three-dimensional objects in the City’s archival collections.

The hat is a reminder of a time when people would not think of leaving their residence or place of business without such a topping. Mayor Curley was quite the dapper don and numerous newspaper accounts discuss his personal style of dress, including his love for hats, elaborate canes, gold watch chains, and other items. 

Curley's hats frequently made the news. The Boston Globe reported on March 1, 1917, that Mayor Curley was wearing a new green felt hat in celebration of “Men’s Spring Hat Day.” Not surprisingly, this particular little-known holiday was willed into existence by Curley himself by official proclamation.

Mayor Curley wearing his new green felt hat, Boston Globe, March 1, 1917

On July 30, 1933, the Globe reported that Mayor Curley had returned from Europe with a new beret. He had been abroad with his family and as part of his trip, he had an audience with Pope Pius XI and spent time learning about the public housing in Vienna. The mayor picked up the beret in Bremen, which answers the question posed by the caption of Curley with his new find: “Where Did He Get That Hat?”

As for the hat in the Archives’ collection, it is a felt top hat (size 9, in case you were wondering) and Curley purchased this item at the Dalton Hat Store. While we may never know the total of Hizzoner’s various hats, we are fortunate to have it here as a reminder of his everyday style.

Max Grinnell teaches urban studies in Boston and Chicago. His writings on cities have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune,the Guardian, and the Seattle Times and a host of other publications. His favorite streets for exploring and understanding Hub history include Mission Hill’s Wigglesworth Street and Neptune Road in East Boston. You can learn more about his professional work at www.theurbanologist.com