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'Straw Hat Rebellion' ruffles fashionable Bridgeton
Eileen Bennett
Staff Writer for The Press of Atlantic City

There are just some rules of fashion you can't fudge, like wearing white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. After all, you just might spark a riot.

If you think we're being a tad dramatic here, think again.

A bona fide fashion rebellion took place downtown here on Sept. 10, 1912.

The event would later come to be known as the "Straw Hat Rebellion."

"I first became aware of it when I was researching that period," said local historian William Chestnut. "A lot of interesting things were going on in that period."

It was before the era of the automobile, and the Raceway at the City Park was a particularly popular place for young people.

"One of the biggest activities in the city was canoeing at the raceway," Chestnut said.

And it was there that the "Crescent Club" -- a fraternal gathering of young men Chestnut described as "old enough to be mature but young enough not to have good judgement." -- hatched a mischievous plot.

"A lot of men wore white straw hats -- Panama-type hats, back then," Chestnut explained. But it was a fashion faux pas to wear them after Sept. 1.

"Anyway, they decided they would become the self-appointed guardians of fashion, snatching people's hats right off their heads and destroying them," Chestnut said.

"The plan spread from the canoe club, and within a few days, it eventually worked its way to the downtown area," Chestnut said. And what started as a fraternity-club prank quickly snowballed out of control.

"After a while, they were snatching hats off people who were in trolley cars," said Chestnut.

"They were even chasing people into stores. They became a pretty rowdy group. There were probably hundreds of people that were involved at the height of this."

By Sept. 10, the prank took on a violent edge, particularly in the heart of downtown, at the intersection of Commerce and Laurel Streets.

"Some people were fighting back," said Chestnut, who pieced the event together through newspaper accounts.

"It turned into a pretty good fight."

Police were called, but couldn't control it. The Fire Department was called in and sprayed fire hoses to restore control.

According to Chestnut, "the authorities got their hands on the ring leaders and marched them up to City Hall and put them in jail. Some people went up there and stormed the building. The whole thing ended up in court.

"The mayor dispensed the justice at that time," Chestnut added. "And as usually happens, you have the haves and the have-nots ... the poorer ones got punished, and the more influential ones got away with it. It's a true story."

While the tale has a humorous edge when told decades later, Chestnut said the event actually proved to be "one of the biggest times of civil unrest in Bridgeton."

"It was a practical joke that just mushroomed, a prank that just got out of hand," he added.


Taken from The Press of Atlantic City;
Anytown 250th Anniversary Special - 6/28/98