Nineteenth-century congressman George Kremer would probably tip his hat to new congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and a Muslim who wears a headscarf for religious reasons, supports a Democratic plan to ease an 181-year-old ban on wearing hats in the House of Representatives. The hat-wearing Kremer vigorously opposed the ban before the House passed it in 1837.
Back then, all House members were men, and many wore hats while doing the people’s business. The House’s rowdy lack of decorum shocked some foreign visitors. Upon entering the U.S. House, “one is struck by the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly,” wrote French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville. According to House historians, members “spat copious amounts of chewing tobacco, smoked cigars, carried weapons, swilled liquor procured from no fewer than 12 vendors in the Capitol, and unfurled newspapers at their desks which they used to prop up their feet during debate.”
It was in this atmosphere that, in 1822, Rep. Charles F. Mercer of Virginia proposed: “Nor shall any Member remain in the Hall covered during the session of the House.” (The “Old Hall” of the House was where members met from 1819 to 1857 after the British burned down the first hall in 1814). Mercer’s proposal won 63 votes but didn’t pass.
In 1828, Rep. George McDuffie of South Carolina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, revived the issue. McDuffie argued that the sea of big hats worn by members muffled sound, making it harder to hear the debates. Pennsylvania’s Kremer, who wore a leopard-skin coat, retorted that the problem “was more in the Hall than in the hat.” He refused to remove his tall hat. Later, Kremer was memorialized in a hand-colored engraving showing him in a chair with a top hat on his head and reading a journal with the headline “Reform.”
In 1833, Rep. James K. Polk of Tennessee made another try for the sake of decorum. North Carolina Rep. Lewis Williams raised a practical objection: “If gentlemen were to be forbidden to wear their hats, what were they to do with them? No place was provided in which they could conveniently be put.” The House at the time didn’t have a cloakroom.
Rep. John M. Patton of Virginia argued that “the really harmless but apparently indecorous practice of wearing our hats” was a symbol of the House’s independence. He noted that in England, members of the House of Commons “always wear their hats in their seats” to show the freedom of the English people from executive control by the king. In an apparent reference to President “King Andrew” Jackson, Patton declared: “If ever our executive magistrates shall attempt to employ any improper influence on this body, let us be found with our hats on.”
Rep. John Marable, a bald lawmaker from Tennessee, asked to be exempted from any no-hats rule for personal reasons. Marable said he wore his hat year-round, “in the cold weather to keep off the cold and in warm weather to keep off the flies.” Polk’s proposal failed.
Lawmakers seemingly put a lid on the hat issue. Then on Sept. 14, 1837, without debate, the House passed a resolution that “Every member shall remain uncovered during the sessions of the House.” How did it happen? By now Mercer, who first proposed a hat ban, had risen to chairman of the Select Committee on the Rules of the House. He tucked the hat prohibition into a batch of rules that members voted on together without any discussion.
Mercer tried to press his luck by then proposing to require members to sit in their seats after adjournment until the House speaker had left the rostrum. That was too much for North Carolina Rep. Jesse Bynum. “There was no knowing where this thing would stop,” he warned. Banning tobacco could be next. (The House banned smoking in 1871. There still isn’t any rule against tobacco spitting.)
The hats were off until a possible challenge arose nearly 100 years later in 1970, when women’s activist Bella Abzug of New York won election to the House. Abzug, a lawyer, was known for wearing wide-brimmed hats. She said she started wearing the hats when meeting with male lawyers. As a young female lawyer, she said, “It was the only way they would take you seriously.”
Abzug vowed to wear her hats on the House floor. But she never did. Reportedly she once headed to the House floor with her hat on. But when the House doorkeeper asked for the bonnet, she turned it over to him — while uttering a four-letter word.
The closest to a real challenge came in 2011 after Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., first won election. Wilson wears colorful sequined cowboy hats. “People get excited when they see the hats,” she said. “This is just me.” Wilson said she would seek permission to wear her hats in the House but dropped the idea.
Wilson still wouldn’t be able to wear her hat under a plan to “clarify” the no-hat rule as Democrats take control of the House this month. The change would allow headwear, but only for religious or medical reasons. Yet as Rep. Bynum said back in 1837, who knows where it will end?
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Ronald G. Shafer is a freelance writer in Williamsburg, Va., and a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.