Abraham Lincoln's Top Hat

images for Abraham Lincoln's Top Hat
At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln towered over most of his contemporaries. He chose to stand out even more by wearing high top hats. He acquired this hat from J. Y. Davis, a Washington hat maker. Lincoln had the black silk mourning band added in remembrance of his son Willie. 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 on April 14, 1865.
After Lincoln’s assassination, the War Department preserved his hat and other material 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 Institution. 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 American 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.
Transfer from the War Department with permission from Mary Lincoln, 1867
related event
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Lincoln, Abraham
Davis, J. Y.
Physical Description
silk (overall material)
overall: 7 in x 10 3/8 in x 12 in; 17.78 cm x 26.35504 cm x 30.48 cm
See more items in
Political History: Political History, Presidential History Collection
National Treasures exhibit
Clothing & Accessories
Government, Politics, and Reform
Changing America
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
place made
United States: District of Columbia, Washington
worn at
United States: District of Columbia, Ford's Theater
mid 19th century
Object Name
top hat
Object Type
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Related Publication
Kendrick, Kathleen M. and Peter C. Liebhold. Smithsonian Treasures of American History
Rubenstein, Harry R.. Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life
Treasures of American History online exhibition
Publication author
National Museum of American History
Publication URL

10 most-read blog posts of 2015

Judging from our blog readers' favorite posts this year, military history is a popular topic. But you also kept some space on your reading list for 1930s delicacies and long-lost amusement parks.

1) An atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist's Green Book
Read over 18,800 times, this post explored the dark side of the all-American road trip during the Jim Crow era. African American families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance, should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant. The Negro Motorist's Green Book helped "black motorists travel safely across a landscape partitioned by segregation and scarred by lynching," as guest blogger Jay Driskell put it.

Photograph of brown top hat

2) A closer look at President Lincoln's silk hat
Not just any hat, we're talking about the silk top hat Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater on the night he was assassinated. After the assassination, it spent 26 years in storage. Rich with details, this touching blog post by curator Harry Rubenstein has been read over 16,900 times.

Photo of table with white lace table cloth and many entree dishes on plates

3) Tasting the 1930s: An experiment with congealed salads and other one-dish wonders
Yes, it's a delight to work in a museum … right up until your boss asks you how you like the tomato aspic with vegetables she made after finding the recipe in a 1930s cookbook.

4) The delicate "war laces" of World War I
Thanks to a German blockade, seven million Belgians were cut off from important food and supplies during World War I. Lacemakers to the rescue!

5) A mother's solace: A letter from a World War I enemy 
The leader of a German balloon squadron writes to the mother of an American soldier he killed, sending Sallie Maxwell Bennett on an overseas quest to locate her son's remains and memorialize him.

6) What does LaGuardia Airport have in common with piano manufacturer William Steinway's long lost amusement park?
Bowery Bay Beach was also known as "The Coney Island of Queens" and it sounds like a fun family getaway.

7) The battlefield cross
The first appearance of the "battlefield cross" is a matter of conjecture.

8) The surrender at Appomattox Court House: 150th anniversary
Though just under 200 words, the terms of surrender for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia includes some interesting details. For example, Confederates who owned their own horses were allowed to keep them to plant spring crops.


9) Remember the Lusitania: 3 pieces of World War I propaganda
In 2015, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat, an event that preceded America's entrance into the war.

10) 5 fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell that aren't about the telephone
Did you know that Bell's actual voice was recorded 130 years ago, and you can still listen to it today?

As the manager of the blog, I'm lucky enough to have time to read all of our posts, so I thought I'd recommend a few of my personal favorites from 2015 that you may have missed.

Curator Alexandra Lord's blog post on early days of anti-vaccination sentiment in America blew me away. I had no idea that this issue had such deep roots and was fascinated by the story of posterchild "Little Belema."

You know how everything stops when a dog or baby visits your office? We enjoyed a visit from not just any pup but an actual war hero. Thanks for stopping by, Fausto

When I decided I wanted to work in a museum (a revelation that took place at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain), I imagined amazing behind-the-scenes experiences. Watching experts work closely with incredible objects was exactly what I had in mind. Our blog post on the conservation of General William T. Sherman's flag is as close as a non-museum-employee may get. 

This year has seen increased discussion on how we deal with mental health issues in America. For some fascinating historical context, I recommend this post on how Patrick Henry (of "Give me liberty, or give me death!" fame) dealt with his wife's mental health challenges. 

I learned to flirt using instant messenger while young people today text their feelings to each other, illustrated with copious emojis. Curator Harold Wallace's blog post reminded me that technology has always shaped how we send messages of love and affection. If I could send you all a CandyGram to thank you for reading our blog, I would. 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.

Posted Date: 
Friday, December 18, 2015 - 11:45


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A closer look at President Lincoln's silk hat

April 15 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. Across the country, there will be numerous remembrances and celebrations of his leadership during the Civil War, recognition of his role in ending slavery, and tributes to his ability to capture and define the nation's aspirations and dreams. His life and legacy are entwined with the history and culture of the nation. Lincoln's rise from poverty to the presidency continues to inspire others to believe in the promise of the nation; his triumph in preserving a democratic nation is one of our greatest triumphs; and his death is our American tragedy.

Black and white print of Abraham Lincoln with a beard and a bow tie

Among the museum's most treasured objects in the Lincoln collection, and certainly its most iconic, is his silk hat. At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln towered over most of his contemporaries. He chose to stand out even more by regularly wearing high top hats.

Wide-brimmed, tall top hat with band around it

Lincoln famously stored papers inside the crowns of his hats, removed them humbly when speaking to constituents, and threw them down in front of generals to emphasize his anger. On April 4, 1865, Lincoln toured the fallen Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly recorded that Lincoln was approached by an elderly African American man who removed his hat and bowed before the President. Lincoln in turn, "removed his own hat, and bowed in silence; but it was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries. It was a death-shock to chivalry, and a mortal wound to caste."

Lincoln acquired this silk hat from J. Y. Davis, a Washington hat maker, whose label appears inside the crown. The hat, approximately a modern size 7 1/8, is trimmed with two bands, a thin 3/8" ribbon with a small metal buckle and a 3" grosgrain black mourning band. The stitching on the second band indicates that it had been added after the hat had been purchased and signaled Lincoln's ongoing mourning for his son Willie, who died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862. In a very public way, Lincoln was linking his loss with the losses of so many during the war. We do not know when he purchased the hat, or how often he wore it. We do know that the last time he put it on was to attend the play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Lincolns and their two guests, Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone, arrived late. When the party took their seats in the presidential box, the crowd wildly cheered and the orchestra played "Hail to the Chief." Lincoln removed his hat and the actors resumed the play where they had left off.

Black open carriage

At about 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the box, pointed a derringer pistol at the back of the president's head, and fired. Fatally wounded, Lincoln was carried across the street to the home of William Petersen where he would die at 7:22 the next morning. The hat was left behind in the presidential box. The War Department that guarded the theatre recovered the hat, along with the chair used by Lincoln, and took the items back to its offices.

Once the trial of Booth's co-conspirators had concluded, the two items were no longer held as evidence, and the War Department transferred the hat and chair to the Interior Department to be safely stored with other national relics that the department maintained at the U.S. Patent Office. The hat was briefly exhibited next to a case with George Washington relics. In 1867, the Smithsonian Institution received the delivery from the Patent Office of Lincoln’s hat and chair. No one at the Smithsonian recorded the actual date.

Upon its arrival, Secretary Joseph Henry, who had served as one of Lincoln's science advisors, ordered that it be immediately crated and placed in the private storage room in the basement of the Smithsonian building. He cautioned the staff "not to mention the matter to any one, on account of there being so much excitement at the time." Although Henry did not further explain his decision, it appears that he shared the belief that displaying items so closely associated with Lincoln's assassination was offensive, and that in his mind, pandering to curiosity seekers would only disrupt the more important scientific work of the Institution.

Painting of a gray-haired man wearing black

The hat remained in storage and would not be seen by the public for the next 26 years until the Institution loaned it to the Lincoln Memorial Association for an exhibition in 1893. The chair would eventually be returned to the descendants of the owners of Ford's Theatre in 1929. Once made public, of all the personal Lincoln items in the collections, the hat became the symbolic emblem of the martyred 16th president. Because the hat was so much a part of Lincoln's persona, and Lincoln is so much a part of the nation, this revered object, which the Smithsonian first hid away, is now one of its greatest treasures.

Harry R. Rubenstein is chair and curator of the Division of Political History. The carriage in which the Lincolns and their guests rode to Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, is on display in the museum's lobby. Visit Ford's Theatre to see the exhibition Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination.

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Sun, 12 Apr 2015 18:14:19 +0000
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Three new collections represent Latinas from L.A.

As a curator at the National Museum of American History, I find that exhibitions are one space in which I can bring history to the public. While exhibitions are truly impactful—around five million people visit our museum each year and our exhibitions are sometimes up for twenty years—curators are also responsible for research and collections that may not be slated for immediate display. Most recently I have been collecting important artifacts from Latinas who have changed the landscape of Los Angeles, California, in various ways. This work is about making sure diverse stories are represented in the national collection.

Over the past two years, I have worked with local Latina leaders to develop collections connected to the lives of three pathbreaking L.A. artists: Judith F. Baca, muralist and professor at University of California, Los Angeles; Martha Gonzalez, lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning band Quetzal; and Josefina López, author and screenwriter of Real Women Have Curves, a 2002 movie directed by Patricia Cardoso.

At the museum, the Division of Home and Community Life preserves objects at the intersection of our private and public lives that are significant to individual experiences, social environments, and community development throughout our nation's past. The artifacts collected from Judy Baca, Martha Gonzalez, and Josefina López represent larger stories about people in Los Angeles making a place for themselves. Their artifacts are about artistic expression and new perspectives.

Photograph of white overalls splattered with paint

Photograph of baseball cap, work boots, and brushes

The artifacts donated by Judy Baca include a pair of painter's overalls that Baca used in the restoration of the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a well-known mural in California's San Fernando Valley that depicts the cultural history of people living in the area from prehistoric times to the 1950s. The paint splattered on the overalls provides its own archive of Judy's work and art. The brown tones are from her restoration of the Great Wall, the blues are from her mural depicting an Olympic runner on the Harbor Freeway (110) North in downtown Los Angeles, and the reds are from her Highland Park mural of the landscape and people of the Arroyo Seco area of Los Angeles. Baca is one of the artists most responsible for L.A.'s reputation as a city of murals.

Photograph of brown box with handle and stickers and black shoes

Martha Gonzalez, lead singer of the band Quetzal, has adapted Son Jarocho folk musical traditions from Veracruz, Mexico, into an Afro-Chicano mix that is reflective of American cultural fusions and can only be described as contemporary Chicana/o rock. Their music is emotional and intellectual. And it is distinctly L.A. Artifacts from Gonzalez include her performance tarima and black dance shoes. A tarima is a five-sided stomp box, with roots in African and Mexican musical traditions, that is used like a drum. The shoes are handmade with tire tread soles and toe-tips and heels dotted with nails for percussive effect. The tarima and shoes are used in community musical traditions as a percussion instrument.

Photo of cover of book of poems

Photograph of award

Josefina López is the author and screenwriter of play-turned-film Real Women Have Curves, a production that revolutionized body image and how Latinas can be featured in Hollywood films. Objects from López include her personal journals from childhood, scripts with notations throughout, and her famed Humanitas Prize trophy, which she received in 2002 for Real Women Have Curves. It has been said that the Humanitas Prize is to screenwriting as the Nobel Prize is to literature. It is awarded for writing that demonstrates and encourages human dignity and freedom. López is the first Latina to win this award.

I present these three examples of recent collections because including their stories in the national repository and knowing that their lives will be forever preserved alongside President Abraham Lincoln's hat, President Thomas Jefferson's Bible, and a piece of Plymouth Rock is not only powerful, it is political. These Latinas from L.A. are officially part of our national story.

Photograph of three scripts with cursive writing on them

Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life.

This blog post is an excerpt of a lecture titled "Practicing Public History: California Stories at the Smithsonian," which will be published in the Southern California Quarterly 98:1 (Spring 2016), due to be released in February.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 11:30
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Tue, 22 Sep 2015 17:02:13 +0000
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Volunteer Museum Ambassadors make all of our visitors VIPs

Do Dorothy's ruby slippers still work if you tap them together three times? What's with the punctuation in our national anthem? Where can I find a dragon on display?

As a museum "ambassador," I am among 20 volunteers in blue shirts who greet visitors and answer questions like these. We get to share in the curiosity of a child, the nostalgia of returning visitors, the treasure hunt of students assigned to find important historical objects, and the amazement of those experiencing our eye on the nation's history for the first time.

An ambassador in a blue shirt stands by the museum map and helps a mom and daughter

We can tell you where to find the First Ladies dresses, the nearest restrooms, and Julia Child's kitchen. You only have 45 minutes before your tour bus leaves? Interested in the Civil War or pirate ships? Here from another country? We can help recommend a meaningful museum visit just for you.

There's more. We're also traffic cops when elevators and escalators break and extra eyes for museum security. We enforce the rule against eating outside the two dining areas in the building. (Crumbs could invite pests into the museum, which could endanger artifacts both on display and in storage.)

"The Museum Ambassador program was conceived as a way to bridge the gap between two other existing volunteer corps here at the museum—our information desk specialists, who provide orientation assistance when guests arrive, and our volunteer docents, who provide Highlights tours, facilitate hands-on demonstrations, and circulate through many of our exhibitions to interact with visitors," said Director of Visitor Services Andrea Lowther.

Group photo of ambassadors in blue shirts in museum lobby

The program was a pilot that ran from March-May 2014, but "we were so pleased with the results that we've extended the pilot indefinitely," Lowther said.

Twenty of the original class of 29 ambassadors are still on duty and have collectively assisted 80,000 visitors (yes, we keep a count). A new class is starting soon and you can apply to be a Museum Ambassador if the opportunity sounds fun to you.

Ambassador speaks to visitor near museum Welcome Center

Some of the kids' questions are the best, and help us learn more about U.S. history. The young boy who noticed the question mark in the first stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner prompted me to consult the museum's website. A blog post explained that author Francis Scott Key—who wrote the song in 1814 during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore—may have been expressing his own anxiety about his young country.

Sometimes kids make us think on our feet. One day, a young girl asked ambassador Jim Kidney about Dorothy's ruby red slippers, wanting to know, "Do they still work?"

Museum ambassador by map near Conestoga Wagon

"Should I lie?" Kidney thought to himself. "What would her mom think of me and the Smithsonian, no matter what I said? I am supposed to be an 'ambassador' after all, and ambassadors are not in the business of ruining child fantasies. But the answer came to me, a native Washingtonian, almost immediately as I surveyed the possibilities. Pass the buck!"

Kidney told the young visitor, "Your Mom knows the answer to that question. You should ask her. Both mother and child departed seemingly satisfied with the answer."

Ruby slippers, bow on front, heel in back, sequins galore

Sometimes, visitors come for a specific item and are disappointed if it's not on display. We can let you know that President Lincoln's hatFonzie's jacket, and Kermit the Frog aren't currently on display and recommend other interesting objects to see, such as the Gunboat Philadelphia, a huge stretch of Route 66, and massive murals chronicling African American history. We often explain that the museum's west wing is currently closed as we prepare to open new exhibitions.

When artifacts are no longer on display, we explain that many objects can only be exposed to light for a short period of time and that rotation can help curators showcase more of the museum's collections over time. (For more on why most exhibitions are temporary and don't last forever, I recommend this helpful blog post.) Object rotation is especially noticeable in American Stories, where you can see Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs.

There are touching moments, too. A military wife shared her reflections with me after seeing the Star-Spangled Banner on display.

In many cases, we direct visitors to exhibitions that will mean something in their lives. I direct visitors from North Carolina to see a lunch counter from Greensboro where the student sit-in movement to protest segregation made headlines. When I see visitors wearing military emblems, I direct them to the stirring third floor exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War. I directed two women of Vietnamese background to that exhibition because they wanted to see the Huey helicopter that played such an important role in the Vietnam War.

Huey Helicopter (nose portion facing camera) in exhibit with panels

Some visitors aren't sure which Smithsonian museum they are in. It's easy to point those searching for the Hope Diamond to the National Museum of Natural History and the Declaration of Independence to the National Archives. But when a little boy from Japan asked to see the "dragon," it took me a while to realize he'd find dinosaurs in a new exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History.

I received one request that would have been quite common in years past, but seemed a bit odd in today's cell phone world.

"Do you know," he asked, "where I can find a pay phone?" That one really stumped me. I sent him to our Welcome Center to see if they could help. If he had come back my way, I would have lent him my cell.

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist who volunteers as an ambassador, a researcher for the museum's political history section, and a researcher/writer for the Steinway Diary Project, a program that researches the diary of piano manufacturer William Steinway and his role in American history.

Volunteer Museum Ambassador Larry Margasak


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Tue, 13 Jan 2015 00:22:33 +0000
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