“The sting of a hornet”; Edwardian hat-pin self defence

The popular trend towards enormous, flamboyant hats reached its zenith during the Edwardian era. Circa 1901, fashionable ladies’ headwear featured elaborate assemblies of taffeta, silk bows, coloured ostrich feathers, flowers and even artificial fruit.

The mainstay of the Edwardian hat was the artfully concealed hatpin, and as the hats themselves grew ever larger, so too did the pins. Some antique examples are thirteen inches long and resemble nothing so much as unbated, miniature fencing foils.

A wealth of evidence from the period demonstrates that hatpins were popularly regarded as secret weapons, and indeed as “every woman’s weapon” against the depredations of hooligans and ill-mannered brutes. Laws against hatpins of “excessive length”, or the wearing of hatpins without protective stoppers, were proposed in Hamburg, Berlin and New York among other cities. At least ostensibly, these laws were intended not so much to ban the use of hatpins in self-defence as to mitigate the incidence of accidental hatpin related injuries inflicted upon blameless fellow passengers in crowded tram-cars.

Certainly, though, the hatpin was the weapon of choice for Edwardian novelists and playwrights who had to extricate their heroines from tight spots.

From Harold MacGrath’s novel “Parrot & Co”, 1914:

Craig stepped in front of them, smiling as he raised his helmet. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”

Elsa, looking coldly beyond him, attempted to pass.

“Surely you remember me?”

“I remember an insolent cad,” replied Elsa, her eyes beginning to burn dangerously. “Will you stand aside?”

He threw a swift glance about. He saw with satisfaction that none but natives was in evidence.

Elsa’s glance roved, too, with a little chill of despair. In stories Warrington would have appeared about this time and soundly trounced this impudent scoundrel. She realized that she must settle this affair alone. She was not a soldier’s daughter for nothing.

“Stand aside!”

“Hoity-toity!” he laughed. He had been drinking liberally and was a shade reckless. “Why not be a good fellow? Over here nobody minds. I know a neat little restaurant. Bring the old lady along,” with a genial nod toward the quaking Martha.

Resolutely Elsa’s hand went up to her helmet, and with a flourish drew out one of the long steel pins.

“Oh, Elsa!” warned Martha.

“Be still! This fellow needs a lesson. Once more, Mr. Craig, will you stand aside? ”

Had he been sober he would have seen the real danger in the young woman’s eyes.

“Cruel!” he said. ” At least, one kiss,” putting out his arms.

Elsa, merciless in her fury, plunged the pin into his wrist. It stung like a hornet; and with a gasp of pain, Craig leaped back out of range, sobered.

“Why, you she-cat!”

“I warned you,” she replied, her voice steady but low. “The second stab will be serious. Stand aside.”

He stepped into the gutter, biting his lips and straining his uninjured hand over the hurting throb in his wrist. The hat-pin as a weapon of defense he had hitherto accepted as reporters’ yarns. He was now thoroughly convinced of the truth. He had had wide experience with women. His advantage had always been in the fact that the general run of them will submit to insult rather than create a scene. This dark-eyed Judith was distinctly an exception to the rule. Gad! She might have missed his wrist and jabbed him in the throat. He swore, and walked off down the street.

Elsa set a pace which Martha, with her wabbling knees, found difficult to maintain.

“You might have killed him!” she cried breathlessly.

“You can’t kill that kind of a snake with a hat-pin; you have to stamp on its head. But I rather believe it will be some time before Mr. Craig will again make the mistake of insulting a woman because she appears to be defenseless.” Elsa’s chin was in the air. The choking sensation in her throat began to subside. “The deadly hat-pin; can’t you see the story in the newspapers? Well, I for one am not afraid to use it.”

Perhaps less frequently than in popular fiction, but still present in newspaper articles and medical journals of the time, we find reports of women wounding male attackers via well-placed jabs with their hatpins. For example, according to a story in the New York Times of January 10, 1898, a Miss Sadie Williams assisted a Chicago tram-car conductor named Symington in fending off two determined would-be robbers by stabbing them both repeatedly in the arms and legs with her hatpin, causing the aggressors so much grief that they jumped off the moving tram to escape the onslaught.

Hatpins were also apparently among the covert weapons used by Suffragettes in their struggles against the London bobbies, augmenting their judicious use of Indian clubs and jiujitsu.

Unfortunately there is a paucity of technical instruction on the hatpin as a weapon. The picture emerges, though, of a two-phase counter-strategy against over-confident ruffians who seized their intended victims by the shoulders or arms. First, the defender would feign shock and indignation, her hand flying up apparently to steady her enormous hat, but in reality to pluck out a hatpin. Then, in one movement, she would jab the weapon forcefully into the offending hand or wrist; Mr. MacGrath was not the only writer to compare the resulting pain to “the sting of a hornet”. This might well suffice to discourage any further offence. If not, the consensus on following-up was to stab the assailant in the face or, if more conveniently accessible, “the place where it hurts the most”.

Hatpin tactics are illustrated in these photographs excerpted from a 1904 self defence article that was featured in the San Francisco Sunday Call newspaper:

“When attacked from behind, she grasps a hatpin. Turning quickly, she is able to strike a fatal blow in the face.”

… and described in the risque music hall ballad, “Never Go Walking Out Without Your Hat Pin”:

My Granny was a very shrewd old lady,
The smartest woman that I ever met.
She used to say, “Now listen to me, Sadie,
There’s one thing that you never must forget.”

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
The law won’t let you carry more than that.
For if you go walking out without your hat pin,

You may lose your head as well as lose your hat.”

My Granny said men never could be trusted.
No matter how refined they might appear.
She said that many maidens’ hearts got busted
Because men never had but one idea.

I’ve heard that Grandpa really was a mess,
So Grandma knew whereof she spoke, I guess.

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
Not even to some very classy joints.
For when a fellow sees you’ve got a hat pin
He’s very much more apt to get the point.

My Mama, too, set quite a bad example.
She never heeded Grandmama’s advice.
She found that if you give a man a sample,
The sample somehow never does suffice.

In fact, it’s rumored I might not have been
If Mum had not gone out without her pin.

Never go walking out without your hat pin.
It’s about the best protection you have got.
For if you go walking out without your hat pin,

You may come home without your you-know-what!

36 thoughts on ““The sting of a hornet”; Edwardian hat-pin self defence”

  1. According to family legend, my great-aunt once foiled a mugger using her hatpin. She got him in the ribs, he hobbled away, and he was arrested when he went to the hospital where my granny worked as a nurse and she recognized her sister’s thistle hatpin. My great-aunt had $3.50 in her purse at the time. True story. Maybe.

  2. Fantastic article. Just a quick note though, circa 1900, Queen Victoria was still on the throne. She didn’t die until 1901. So late Victorian & Edwardian. Sorry to be pedantic. X

  3. Granted – I went with Edwardian because most of the sources were post 1901. I get tired of writing “late Victorian/Edwardian” and “fin de siecle” just tends to confuse people.

  4. hat pins are unorthodox, effective weapons for self defense…women don’t need to wear a hat…just hide it stuck on the inside of a coat collar, in the strap of a hand bag…know where to strike…and wa-la…surprise, surprise.

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  6. A few years prior to our 1975 marriage, my wife was in Madrid, Spain on semester abroad. The men on the bus had their hands all over the young women she was with. Until she took out her hat pin and started poking randomly. The groping stopped.

  7. Concerning the ‘Sadie Hawkins’ story, I would take it with a grain of salt since ‘Sadie Hawkins’ indicated a day when women could be agressors in asking men to dance. (like a ‘Paul Jones’ in Britain. If the story actually happened it could have been used as a pseudonym that everyone would have recognized.

    That said, Mum had an old hatpin in her jewelry box when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. It was indeed about an 8 inch long skewer with a large diamante’ bell shape handle. Lethal indeed, hope none of the ‘aunts’ as she referred to them, had to use it. Only one of the aunts survived into my lifetime and she was a darling.

  8. That had occurred to me; could be a pseudonym or a coincidence, or possibly (given the state of newspaper reporting at the time) a joke or tall tale.

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  10. Very interesting! Thank you for this info. I was reading in an Agatha Christie short story that a man disguised as a woman stabbed someone to death with a hat pin and was wondering how that could be possible. Now I see. I was thinking too small – I thought it would be like a hair pin. I think I would like to get myself a couple of hat pins and carry them with me lol

  11. The memory lingered on into the 70s. “I’d just stab him with a hatpin!” Long after most women had ceased to wear hats. If you wanted a hatpin, they were very hard to find!

  12. I chased down the article in NYT’s archive because Sadie Hawkins seemed to good to be true – and unfortunately it was. The Sadie in question had the surname Williams, not Hawkins.

  13. In one of Agatha Christie’s “Tommy & Tuppence” stories, the victim is stabbed with a hatpin. Tommy thinks that indicates that the killer was a woman, but Tuppence points out to him that with bobbed hair and cloche hats being in fashion, most women don’t routinely carry hatpins anymore, and it was probably more likely a man who wanted it to LOOK like a woman’s crime.

  14. I thought Agatha Christie might have nicked the idea from Baroness Orczy, but I can’t find my copy of the Old Man in the Corner. She apparently does refer to him in that story. Also see Rob van Gulik’s excellent Chinese Nail Murders for a similar idea.

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