There doesn’t seem to be total agreement on why Lincoln started wearing a top hat. Some historians say that he probably chose to wear the hat early in his political career as a “gimmick” to catch attention. Others theorize that he started wearing the hat when it became a popular way to show off wealth and stature. Historians point to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, as the person from whom Americans picked up this high-class fashion trend. Regardless of of the true reason that Lincoln started donning a top hat, it stayed with him until the end of his life.
As the years wore on and Lincoln continued to wear the eye-catching hat, it seemed to become much more of a personal quirk that he became attached to rather than an attempt at upper crust fashion. This makes sense, as he was never known for high style in his other attire, described by one historian as being “of unassuming simplicity”. As for the top hats, he would wear the same one for years at a time and they were described as being “battered” and “crumpled”. He wore his hats in bad weather and even used them as a device to carry paperwork. Despite the shabby condition of his hats, he still commanded a lot of attention when wearing them. At 6’4”, he still ranks as America’s tallest president, and adding a top hat would have put him at nearly 7 feet tall!
Read this excellent article from the online Smithsonian magazine to find out more details about Abraham Lincoln and his hat.
Facts About the Hat Lincoln Was Wearing the Night of his Assassination
- Despite some depictions you may see, Lincoln’s hat was actually sitting on the ground beside him when John Wilkes Booth shot him.
- The hat was size 7 1/8 and made by Washington hatmaker J.Y. Davis
- A black silk mourning band had been added to the hat in memory of Lincoln’s son Willie.
- After his death, the hat went to the War Department, then the Patent Office Building, and finally to the Smithsonian. The secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, Joseph Henry, had served under Lincoln as his science adviser. Having a great deal of respect for the president, he didn’t want to cause a stir by immediately exhibiting the hat. When it came into his hands, he put it in a box in stored it in the Smithsonian basement. It remained there until 1893 when it was finally put on display for the public to see.