A peek into our collections, one object at a time

The Hat That Symbolized a Life and Legacy

February 13, 2024
Social Media Share Tools
Lincoln Hat
President Abraham Lincoln’s top hat; Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Transfer from the War Department with permission from Mary Lincoln, 1867.  

At 6’4” tall, President Abraham Lincoln towered over most of his contemporaries. He chose to stand out even more by wearing high top hats. He acquired this one from Washington hat maker J.Y. Davis. Lincoln had the black silk mourning band added in remembrance of his son Willie, who had died in 1862. No one knows when he obtained the hat or how often he wore it. The last time he put it on was to go to Ford’s Theatre April 14, 1865.

After Lincoln’s assassination, the War Department preserved his hat and other personal items left at Ford’s Theatre. With permission from Mary Lincoln, the department gave the hat to the Patent Office, which, in 1867, transferred it to the Smithsonian. Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, ordered his staff not to exhibit the hat “under any circumstance, and not to mention the matter to any one, on account of there being so much excitement at the time.” It was immediately placed in a basement storage room.

The public did not see the hat again until 1893, when the Smithsonian lent it to an exhibition hosted by the Lincoln Memorial Association. Today it is one of the Institution’s most treasured objects.

The hat is on view in “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

See 3D images of Lincoln’s face and hands, as well as images of other U.S. Presidents, from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office. And visit the National Portrait Gallery’s online exhibition “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln.”