In 1916 Booth Tarkington wrote a book about a boy named Penrod, and in most of the book’s illustrations, Penrod is wearing a newsboy cap. Although few men or boys would wear anything called a newsboy cap today, they are now called “thug caps” and have become popular among those willing to pay as much as $118 to wear one. We read in the ads that a man wearing a thug cap is making a statement.

The term “newsboy cap” is new to me, although in the early 1940s, the caps were very common here in St. George. We called them “Swedish paving cutter hats” because it was the kind of hat my father and many of the other paving cutters wore to work at the time. There is one hanging on a nail out in my henhouse that has been there since 1938 or perhaps before. They had a narrow but broad soft visor that had to be pulled low to keep the sun out of your eyes, giving one a furtive look – which might be why J. Peterman now markets them as “thug caps.”

Would you be surprised to hear that you can also buy a top hat or a bowler from J. Peterman? If I were a bit younger, I’d get a top hat just for the fun of wearing it to town when it wasn’t windy. I think I saw Dr. Demento in a top hat at a humor conference in Anaheim. And Ron Carter, Key West’s notorious Noodleman, sported one, too.

There was a battered old top hat in the house when I was a kid. When my little brother, Jim, was 6 or 7 years old, he used to put on that top hat and a cape and walk through the woods with a silver-headed cane. He still knows all the birds out there by sight and song.

I once saw a movie in which the hero ran around, in what we were led to believe was 40-below Minnesota weather, wearing a sheepskin coat but nothing on his head. You can trust it wasn’t that cold when they shot the movie, or the man’s ears would have frozen and dropped off. In today’s world his rough, rugged, manly image would have suffered if he had some kind of hat pulled down over his ears.

So what is it about a hat that defines a man’s character? His manliness? When I – ever a wimp – was in grade school, the sight of my ears on the playground was a harbinger of summer weather. I remember hearing, “Spring is here. Skoglund’s got his earflaps up.” A few years later when I was in high school, boys would soak their hair with water, comb it into an Elvis-like pompadour and then go outside, where their hair would freeze solid in the January cold.

I wore a red “Bah Humbug” hat to a recent Grange community Christmas supper. That hat has a long, red, drooping tassel with a white fuzzy ball at the end. I was hoping it would generate a little Christmas commentary, although I felt a bit odd wearing a hat when I sat down to eat. But when I stood up and looked around, I counted six other men (one 91 years old, whose hat advertised Guptill’s Mill in Machias) who obviously felt comfortable in baseball caps while eating at a table.

For 50 years I’ve had the impression that it was a hatless President Kennedy who destroyed the hat industry in the United States. A few have suggested, with some merit, that it was the low overhead in automobiles that discouraged men from wearing hats.

Seventy years ago there was radio jingle that advertised Adam Hats. Do you remember it? “I go for a man who wears an Adam Hat.” “I love my man who wears an Adam Hat.” And then someone whistled. Those of us who close our eyes to shampoo commercials that show lathered, dripping bodies in showers would gladly trade them for an Adam Hat commercial with the whistle.

Although the baseball cap with a curled-down visor rules in rural Maine, you are unlikely to see a hat on any man who attends Wyeth exhibitions or pays to hear Yo-Yo Ma.

There are rare exceptions. If you never got past the sixth grade – or are a judge with a degree from Harvard Law School – you have never noticed what the average Maine man wears, and you know enough to put on mittens, overshoes and a fuzzy watch cap before stepping out into a blizzard.

The Humble Farmer can be heard Friday nights at 7 on WHPW (97.3 FM) and visited at his website: MainePrivateRadio.html

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