The History Behind Abe Lincoln's Iconic Top Hat

The History Behind Abe Lincoln's Iconic Top Hat

It's hard to imagine United States President Abraham Lincoln without his iconic top hat. Yet, few know the history of the hat that is almost synonymous with America's 16th president.

It is not known when or why Abe Lincoln adopted the stovepipe top hat, but historians speculate that it may have been a political gimmick to make him more memorable. Lincoln's hat was a traditional beaver fur to hat, which was trendy during the Victorian era. Even though Lincoln was already 6' 4", the hat added to his towering height and gave him a powerful and unforgettable presence. He started wearing the stovepipe top hat during the 1850s and wore it throughout his presidency.

Although the top hat was often associated with high-class gentlemen and haute couture of the 19th century, Lincoln's top hat was battered and worn. The reformer Carl Schurz recalled his first meeting with Lincoln, describing Lincoln’s tailcoat as shabby and his top hat as crumpled, giving him what one historian has called a look “of unassuming simplicity.”

In 1862, President Lincoln’s 11 year old son Willie died in the Lincoln bedroom of the white house from Typhoid fever. Willie was their second child to die. This loss combined with the pressures of being president during a civil war is almost beyond imaging. President Lincoln tied a black ribbon around his stovepipe hat to mark his loss. Mrs. Lincoln hosted séances in the White House in effort to contact her lost sons. Stories suggest that she hosted as many as eight séances in the White House and that her husband attended a few of them.

Although three years since Willie's death, President Lincoln's hat still bore the black mourning ribbon on the night he was assassinated. Abraham dressed for the theater in a silk top hat, size 7-1/8, from the Washington hat maker J. Y. Davis. When Lincoln was shot, the hat was on the floor beside his chair. The floral suit that the Abe Lincoln of "Forever Friday" wears is finished with black silk lapels and a black satin bow tie as a nod to the black ribbon that Lincoln had tied to his top hat in remembrance of his son. This detail not only highlights the tragedies of Lincoln's personal life, but it also emphasizes the importance of family to Lincoln.