Why girls in hats?

John Sloan, "The Return from Toil," The Masses, July, 1913, Front Cover. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

John Sloan, “The Return from Toil,” The Masses, July, 1913, Front Cover. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

You may be wondering about the banner image on this site – who are these joyful, hatted girls, and what are they doing here?

The image comes from an illustration by John Sloan that graced the cover of The Masses in July 1913. I first encountered it almost 20 years ago, in the solemn stacks of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, during research for my senior essay on progressive activist Rose Pastor Stokes. I was struck by it then – the happy camaraderie of these girls juxtaposed with the illustration’s title, “The Return from Toil.” Their exuberance did not match the working girls’ story, defined by sweatshops, strikes, and hardship, that I had previously encountered.

I rediscovered the image during my research for the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Living the Legacy project, and decided to use it as one of the curriculum’s primary sources. The juxtaposition of toil and joy in being together reveals the intertwining of work and female community in women’s lives. The image also helps to illustrate the concept of “Bread and Roses,” popularized by labor activist Rose Schneiderman, who insisted that workers have a range of needs – not only subsistence – that must be fulfilled for their humanity to flourish. This insight was one of the great contributions of women to the labor movement.

And the hats – those glorious, fancy, overburdened hats! Working girls – especially immigrants, many of whom signaled their Americanization through fashion – often skipped lunch to save their meager pennies for a new hat. In fact, the striking garment workers of 1909-1910 included a place to hang their hats and protect them from the crush of workers on their list of grievances and demands (much to the contempt of male union leaders who saw hats as nothing but an insignificant diversion). And these garment workers wore their hats proudly not only to the dance halls but also on the picket lines.

Photograph from the George Grantham Bain Collection documenting women strikers selling newspapers during the New York shirtwaist workers strike. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph 3a49621.

Photograph from the George Grantham Bain Collection documenting women strikers selling newspapers during the New York shirtwaist workers strike. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph 3a49621.

So I invited these working girls to join me here to represent the power of history and the lesser-known versions of the story; the importance of work and female community in my own life; the uplifting pleasure in hats and other “roses”; and the contradictions that make life challenging and endlessly interesting.

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2 Responses to Why girls in hats?

  1. Wear your hat proudly! Love your first blog post. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Kalanit! Hats, of course, also remind me of Bella Abzug, another hero of mine…

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