The Origin and History of the Kossuth Hat
Lajos Kossuth, John N. Genin and the Kossuth Hat
In the first days of December 1851 countless thousands of American awaited the imminent arrival of Lajos Kossuth, Hungary's leader against the ruling Hapsburg dynasty during the 1848-49 War of Liberation. Americans followed the struggle with interest and sympathy. President Zachary Taylor even contemplated on recognizing the Kossuth government and dispatched a special envoy, Dudley Mann, to ascertain the situation. By the time Mann arrived, however, the Hapsburg army, aided by a massive Russian contingent, was victorious over the revolutionaries. Kossuth and many others fled to the neighboring Ottoman Empire where they found refuge. Despite this turn of events, support for the Hungarian cause and concern for the fate of Kossuth remained strong in the United States. Numerous prominent individuals and organizations lobbied to have Kossuth come to America. In the summer of 1851 the Fillmore administration dispatched the warship Mississippi to bring Kossuth to the country as the "nation's guest."
Some Americans were merely curious to see and hear the man who made the headlines so often in the past few years; others were sincere admirers and ardent supporters. Various political, civic and religious groups hoped that Kossuth would lend his name to their cause and speak about the issues dear to them. Foremost among these were abolitionists of various shades, representing the downtrodden slaves. Lurking in the background were a host of businessmen, scrupulous and unscrupulous. All of them were aware of the magic of Kossuth's name and all of them were eager to have it associated with their products and/or services. Celebrity endorsement, much in vogue today, wasn't entirely unknown even in those long-ago days.
The renowned patriot, with some fifty others, boarded the frigate on September 11, 1851. However, Kossuth disembarked at Gibraltar to pay a visit to Great Britain. The Mississippi chugged into New York harbor on November 10. Naturally there was much disappointment that Kossuth wasn't on board. Nevertheless the exiles were most cordially received and were feted as heroes. Numerous individuals and organizations rendered aid in various forms.
Particularly helpful to the newcomers John N. Genin, the city's most famous hatter. He was also the driving spirit behind the Kossuth Fund to which he contributed a thousand dollars. The gesture, which was initiated before the exiles arrived, was widely applauded. "We trust that the example of Mr. Genin may find prompt imitation among those who are in a situation to follow it," wrote the Zion's Herald and Weslyan Journal on October 15, 1851.
A flamboyant and astute businessman, someone who fully appreciated the power of advertising and favorable publicity, Genin was once quoted as saying: "I am well satisfied, from careful observation and experience, that advertising is a mainspring of success in every branch of business." Born in 1819 in New York, Genin entered the labor force at 13. Thanks to unbounded energy and an uncanny ability to gain attention, he founded his own emporium when he was but 22 years old. To promote himself and his establishment, Genin even penned a small book entitled An Illustrated History of the Hat. Published in 1848, the monograph wasn't so much a scholarly treatise but rather an advertisement for his merchandise.
Unlike today, in those days the hat constituted an integral part of the attire of a fashionable gentleman all year round. Competition among hatters was keen; in addition to moving merchandise, most attempted to set trends with their wares. Dominating the fashion scene was the hard-shelled silk hat, sometimes described as resembling "a section of a stove pipe."
When tickets for Jenny Lind's premier performance in the United State were being auctioned off in September 1850, Genin paid the then unheard sum of $225 to secure first choice. It was a brilliant stroke on his part. Newspapers throughout the land announced to their readers that the very first ticket for the Swedish Nightingale's concert was purchased by Genin, the Broadway hatter. His name became familiar to millions. In New York men hurried to Genin's shop at 214 Broadway to purchase a hat, and if possible, to catch a glimpse of the man. Perceiving the enormous market potential for anything pertaining to the idolized young singer, Genin dubbed one of the ladies' hats he was carrying the Jenny Lind Riding Hat. Sales were most gratifying and his reputation grew by leaps and bounds.
New York's snobbish upper crust found Genin's antics boorish and deplorable. The witty lawyer George Templeton Strong, himself a member of this select group and whose diary provides vivid glimpses of life in the city for a period spanning some fifty years, made this scathing entry on September 9, 1850: "Jenny Lind mania continues violent and uncontrolled. Auction of seats for her first concert Saturday; Genin the hatter took seat No. 1 at $225, Moffat and Brandreth bidding against him - a rare conjunction of asses."
Throughout the years the New York media tended to depict Genin as a shrewd and greedy merchant. The Brooklyn Eagle, June 15, 1854, sneered that Genin's interests were confined to "a noisy reputation and a full purse." The extensive Hungarian émigré literature contains no such negative comments about Genin. According to these writings, the hatter took a personal interest in the welfare of the Mississippi passengers, helping them to obtain jobs and otherwise gain a foothold in the new homeland.
Following a triumphant three-week whirlwind tour of Great Britain, Kossuth, accompanied by a small entourage, took the Humboldt for the trans-Atlantic voyage. The two most notable members of this group were Ferenc Pulszky, the Hungarian revolutionary government's envoy to Great Britain, and his wife Terezia, a talented lady of considerable accomplishments. Also among the fellow passengers was the well-known international courtesan, Lola Montez, who did her best to vie for attention. The ship arrived in New York harbor around midnight on Thursday, December 4, 1851. The city fathers asked Kossuth to remain on Staten Island on Friday in order to allow them to make arrangements for a grand public reception on Saturday.
Genin's warehouse was bursting with a novel style of hat - low crowned, made of soft felt - which he was hoping would capture the fancy of customers and, at the same time, shower him with handsome profits. Since the Jenny Lind Riding Hat by its very name had a spectacular appeal, Genin had a brilliant idea. Why not adorn the new headgear with an ostrich feather and christen it the Kossuth hat? Of course for this concept to fly properly required some form of direct endorsement from renowned patriot himself. When Genin approached Kossuth, the latter was amenable to wear it since it was pleasing in appearance and comfortable on the head. And what better way to express gratitude to the man who was a staunch benefactor of the Hungarian cause?
Early Saturday morning, December 6, Kossuth, escorted by the local militia and accompanied by several of his Hungarian followers and a host of local dignitaries, boarded the steamer Vanderbilt. As the boat sped across the harbor toward Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan island, nearby vessels tooted their horns, people lining the surrounding shores cheered and guns fired salutes. A throng estimated at over one hundred thousand awaited Kossuth at Castle Garden as he stepped ashore in the park. The din of the crowd drowned out Mayor Ambrose Kingsland's welcome as it did Kossuth's reply. Countless lively spectators crowded a flag-bedecked Broadway as the massive parade moved up from Castle Garden to City Hall (Photo by Stephen Beszedits).
Newspaper accounts describing his arrival and reception were overwhelmingly favorable. "He is here," intoned Horace Greeley, America's greatest editor of the 19th century, "to arouse us to a consciousness of our national position and the responsibilities it involves."
Kossuth's attire was also noted and described in detail, especially the hat. It quickly became the rage. Demand for the hat wasn't confined to any particular segment of society; young and old were equally eager to wear one and its sale was as brisk among the rich and famous as it was among the humble folks. In New York City, the chapeau became the favorite of the "bucks of Broadway." Not to be outdone, the boulevardiers of the Bowery also embraced the Kossuth hat, but dropped the black ostrich plume, replacing it with three turkey tail feathers. Demand for the hat was as intense in the untamed West as it was in the civilized East. The Pacific Ocean posed no barrier; Kossuth hats were sold even in far-off Hawaii, not yet a part of the United States. For example, one of the emporiums advertised the availability of the "latest style riding hats, Panama hats, Leghorn hats, Kossuth hats, glazed hats" in The Polynesian on June 2, 1855. Needless to say, public response over the hat made Genin a very happy man.
Newspapers praised its natural shape and deemed it to be "consistent alike with good taste and practical adaptation to the cranial necessities." The Springfield Republican of Massachusetts judged it to be a sensible hat. "The article is picturesque and more comfortable and healthful than the hat in common use," affirmed another daily. One paper simply echoed the general sentiment: "As an evidence of the decided good taste of our people, we remark that the Kossuth Hat is growing into general use." Even the prestigious Scientific American became involved in the debate, declaring that the Kossuth hat was "a decided improvement upon the hard shelled silk hats which are now generally worn" and stressed that "it's conducive equally to the health and comfort of the wearer."
So ubiquitous was the hat and so much publicity surrounded it that even serious admirers of Kossuth - far more engrossed with the important issues expounded by the great patriot - felt compelled to comment on it. For example, Alexander McClure, the eminent journalist, devoted an entire chapter to Kossuth in his Recollections of Half a Century in which he touches upon a myriad of points, including the hat: "The fine soft felt hat was then unknown in the United States, and there was widespread prejudice against its acceptance, but the Kossuth hat became a fad and was worn generally by the smart set, and gradually its comfort and convenience made it generally acceptable."
George Templeton Strong, unaffected by the Kossuth mania sweeping the land, confided in his diary on Christmas Eve, 1851: "Perhaps a reform in the hats of America will flow from the preaching of the illustrious Magyar. It's to be hoped it may, for the Hungarian hat has the advantage in grace and comfort both of our American stove-pipe sections." He also added a gloomy prediction: "I doubt the likelihood of any other lasting result from his mission."
As Kossuth toured the country, he was greeted by enthusiastic multitudes. Wherever he appeared he made a powerful and lasting impression. William Dean Howells, a prolific author of highly esteemed, successful and influential books, was a youth of 15 when he saw and heard Kossuth on the steps of the unfinished State House in Columbus, OH. Decades later he recounted the memorable moment in his autobiographical Years of My Youth. Howells was struck not only by Kossuth's words but also his attire: "I hung on the words of the picturesque [man] ... in the braided coat of the Magyars, and the hat with an ostrich plume up the side which set a fashion among us."
Unable to secure any sort of official help for the Hungarian cause, a disappointed Kossuth left the United States in July 1852 and took up residency in London. Before leaving, Kossuth spoke to a packed audience at the Broadway Tabernacle on the evening on June 21, his topic being The Future of Nations: In What Consists Its Security. Many judged it to be his finest speech; it was partially or entirely reproduced in various dailies and magazines and later in the form of little book by Fowlers and Wells.
His departure did not diminish the popularity of the hat bearing his name; it continued to be the chapeau of choice for many over the ensuing years. When the daring filibusterer William Walker and his principal military associate Frederick Henningsen, perhaps the 19th century's greatest soldier-of-fortune, arrived in New York from Nicaragua in the summer of 1857, the press, though dwelling extensively on their exploits, also described their attire, including the fact that both men wore Kossuth hats. Reminiscing about Giuseppe Garibaldi's visit to Boston in September 1853 as captain of the bark Carmen, the Sentinel of Freedom, October 9, 1860 wrote that the great Italian hero, while on shore in the city, usually wore a plain citizen's dress with a Kossuth hat.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War volunteer military units on both sides adopted distinctive uniforms, ranging from the simple and practical to the outlandishly fantastic. The Kossuth hat readily passed from the civilian to the military sphere. For example, the colonel of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment recommended a light Kossuth hat, crown about six inches high, and the rim looped up on one side. Legendary detective Allan Pinkerton, escorting the newly-elected Abraham Lincoln to the White House in February 1861, recalled that the President was wearing a black Kossuth hat, the gift of an ardent supporter during the campaign. The visit of the notorious Charles Jennison, one of the leaders of the Kansas Jayhawkers, to St. Louis, MO, didn't go unnoticed even by Southern newspapers. The August 20, 1861 edition of the Daily Constitutionalist of Augusta, GA, commented that he was "sporting a suit of regimentals and a Kossuth hat, ornamented with a bunch of chicken feathers, the spoil probably of some border roost."
The formation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867 was vehemently denounced by Kossuth and he remained in exile in Italy, completely withdrawn from active politics. Despite his absence from the international stage, the American media continued to cover events in his life, invariably commenting on the hat he made famous.
In an article entitled "Short Lectures on Dress" and printed in the August 20, 1871 edition of the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, the reporter reminisced that "when Kossuth came to this country in pursuit of Hungarian independence, he introduced the Kossuth hat, which was universally worn in a short time. ... Sympathy for the cause of Hungary ran high in those days, ... I have known men to go to Hungary for days in order that they might sport a Kossuth hat and feather. ... The feather was not long in vogue, but the Kossuth hat, in various forms, exists to this day."
At a meeting of the Catholic Beneficial Society in 1874 in Alexandria, Virginia, a black Kossuth hat adorned with a green feather was adopted as the uniform hat of the society. When the New York Herald interviewed Thomas A. Edison in December 1878, the reporter not only elaborated upon the important work engaging the renowned inventor but also added that "an old Kossuth hat, with white finger marks, rested lightly on the back of his head."
In the a piece headed by "The Names of Articles of Dress," the Lancaster Daily Intelligencer of Lancaster, PA, wrote on April 26, 1884: "Louis Kossuth distinguished his visit to this country by introducing into general use the soft felt hats which were then called Kossuth hats." Ruminating in the same vein on April 2, 1885, the San Marcos Free Press of Texas wrote: "The elegant Hungarian wore a soft felt hat, which became fashionable for young men, being reproduced in the shops under the name of the Kossuth hat." Several mid-Western papers in 1888 reminded their readers that "before Kossuth came here to walk the street with a soft hat was to invite a crowd to follow you." Reflecting on the capricious nature of fashion and the history of hats in vogue in the past and at present, the Kansas City Times, commenting on the Kossuth hat in its February 15, 1891, issue said: "It instantly became the rage, and the head gear of the nation was absolutely changed because a popular hero had come over the sea. The effect of the Kossuth hat is still felt."
Kossuth died 1894 in Turin, Italy. His remains were taken to Hungary and laid to rest in a splendid mausoleum. Hundreds of thousands attended the accompanying ceremonies. His passing was duly noted in newspapers throughout the United States and almost all of them had more than a few words about the famous hat, still in vogue. The Springfield Republican, March 22, 1894, extolled the hat as "the most picturesque and becoming article which ever surmounted an American head." Over the ensuing years numerous memorials were erected in Kossuth's honor throughout the land and in 1958 he was featured on the "Champion of Liberty" series of stamps by the U.S. Post Office.
Genin passed away sixteen years earlier, in 1878, a decade after being struck by spinal paralysis which left him an invalid. Following the funeral services on May 3, he was interred in Green-Wood Cemetery, the famous necropolis of a vast multitude of notables. Referring to him as a millionaire hatter, the Washington Post mentioned that he had "sold many thousand Kossuth hats."
In 1902 Hungarians throughout the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Kossuth's birth. While in the early 1850s the Hungarian population of the United States could be best and most accurately described as miniscule, a half century later it numbered several hundred thousand. Consequently elaborate ceremonies were held by all major Hungarian communities to mark this very special occasion. Many dailies across the country gave front page coverage of the events staged. One of the most noteworthy of these was the unveiling of a superb statue of Kossuth in the city of Cleveland. Interestingly enough, there was a flurry of complaints that the great patriot was depicted without the famous hat.
A decade later, several newspapers - among them the Sunday News Tribune of Duluth, MN, on February 11, 1912 - carried articles deploring the absence of the Kossuth hat in the new English dictionary while raglan, cardigan, macintosh and other similar appellations were admitted. The following year a barrage of rebuttals along with a lively debate ensued in the media when New York Sun reporter Jabez Elliot mistakenly assigned the Kossuth hat to the plug hat family.
The introduction of the Kossuth hat on the American fashion scene and the longevity of the apparel are undeniable facts. However, there is a charming tale connected with the story which is a total fabrication. According to this anecdote, the ingenious Genin patiently monitored and awaited the arrival of the Humboldt. When the ship was sighted off Sandy Hook, NJ, the telegraph office there sent word to New York City. The intrepid merchant thereupon hopped into a rented tug with a good supply of hats, met the Humboldt, and presented Kossuth and his entourage with the samples, declaring that the hat been especially made in honor of the great patriot and named after him.
This fanciful tale is incorrect in every detail and is nothing more than the product of an overactive imagination. There is a mountain of evidence that this event never occurred. (Variations of this story exists and they are equally incorrect.) First of all, four of the Hungarians around Kossuth - namely, Gedeon Ács, Károly László, Ferenc Pulszky and Miklós Perczel - left fairly detailed accounts of all the happenings upon Kossuth's arrival and none of them mention such a stunt by Genin. Neither is such an incident reported in any of the wide array of newspapers covering the event. Had it occurred, it would have surely been emblazoned on headlines as many of Genin's antics were. There are other compelling reasons to doubt this version of events. Given the primitive navigational and communication means available in those days, cruising around in open waters in the middle of the night to hook up with another vessel would have been a foolhardy and dangerous venture, with little chance of success.
However, both Perczel and László mention that Kossuth was wearing Genin's hat on the memorable day when he made his entry to New York City. Perczel writes: "Kossuth bársonyzekét viselt, vállán az a prémes panyóka, melyet Londonban Mayer, magyar eredetű szűcs ajándékozott neki; fején fekete tollú alacsony kalap, igen jól festett" [Kossuth wore a velvet jacket with a fur collar, which was given to him in London by Mayer, a Hungarian-born furrier; on his head was a low-rise hat with black feather, altogether quite appealing]. According to László: "Kossuth egészen feketébe, fényes feketegombos fekete, Kossuth-attilá-ba, fekete strucctollas Kossuth kalap-ba, oldalán karddal, ... [Kossuth was dressed entirely in black, black Kossuth-attila with shiny black buttons, black Kossuth-hat with ostrich feather, a sword at his side, ...]
Reviewing all the evidence, it's certain that Genin gave Kossuth the hat on Friday on Staten Island. Friday was an incredibly hectic day for Kossuth as he received innumerable callers and attended an array of festivities. The presence of Genin, well known for his personal solicitude toward the exiles and his generous financial contribution, among the many distinguished guests would have attracted little notice nor would it have been regarded as particularly newsworthy. A brief reference to hats on that Friday comes from the pen of Madame Pulszky. This vague commentary mentions that the vast multitude of visitors and Staten Islanders milling about Kossuth could readily identify "our Hungarian gentlemen, ... by their differently shaped hats." Incidentally, none of the Hungarian accounts from those days elaborates on the Kossuth hat; it is mentioned but cursorily. There were many far more important matters to contend with.
Today, Genin is among the largely forgotten of New York. The Encyclopedia of New York State has nothing on him and the Encyclopedia of New York City contains but a passing mention. He is likewise absent from most of the books on the history of the Big Apple. This oversight was somewhat remedied in March 1999 when the New York Historical Society opened an exhibition devoted to John N. Genin. Entitled "The Celebrated Hatter" and it ran until June. On display were sundry hats sold by Genin and advertisements praising his merchandise. It was a timely and appropriate tribute to the man who was once one of the city's truly unique and charismatic characters.
Notes - There is no shortage of writings on Kossuth's tour of the United States. A thorough account, focusing on his political agenda, is the often cited Louis Kossuth in America by John H. Komlos, dating from 1973. A very readable account in Hungarian is the 1931 work by József Balassa entitled Kossuth Amerikában 1851-1852.
Francis and Theresa Pulszky's White, Red, Black, while recounting many details of Kossuth's activities in the United States, contains much descriptive material about America and Americans. It was originally published in England upon their return there and then shortly afterwards in the United States. The quotation by Károly László comes from his Napló-töredék [Diary Fragment], released in 1878. The brief passage by Miklós Perczel is from his Naplóm az emigrációból [My Diary from the Emigration], a document which languished in manuscript form until 1979. Both László and Perczel shared the entire Turkish internment with Kossuth and both came to the United States aboard the Mississippi. László also accompanied Kossuth on his tour of the country. Miklós Perczel is better known in American history as Nicholas Perczel, the first colonel of the 10th Iowa Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Unlike Kossuth, László and Perczel returned to Hungary after 1867.