Defense Media Network

Sailors Liked the “Flat Hat” and Wore It for 111 Years

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It might appear a bit odd today, but the dark blue “flat hat” of the past still evokes fond memories among sailors and is very much a part of U.S. Navy tradition.

Easy to recognize is the more familiar white hat, nicknamed the “Dixie cup hat,” but the distinctive “flat hat” came first, and was standard issue for more than a century.

Easy to recognize is the more familiar white hat, nicknamed the “Dixie cup hat,” but the distinctive “flat hat” came first, and was standard issue for more than a century.

Flat Hat

Three U.S. Navy sailors pose for a photo, ca. 1918. Two of the sailors where the “flat hat” with the name of their submarine, the USS O-3, embroidered on the front. This practice was discontinued during the early days of World War II. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

Records of the Naval Historical Center show that the flat hat was authorized in 1852, was standard throughout the American Civil War, and remained in use long after white headgear – much later given the “Dixie cup hat” appellation – was introduced as an alternative in 1886.

At first, flat hats were made of dark blue wool known as Metcalf serge. If the skipper permitted, a white cover could be attached to the top of the hat to protect the wearer from sunlight during periods of warm weather. After white hats were added to Navy issue, many sailors received both flat hats and white hats. The choice between the two depended upon the whim of skippers at sea and shore-based commanders.

“My father wore the hat in and around Boston in 1918. The hats in that era flared out quite far at the top. He said the hat was ‘girl-bait.’ The wider the flare the saltier you were.”

Prior to the U. S. entry into World War II, most flat hats, but not all, had unit or ship names embroidered on the front. This practice was ended in January 1941 to make it more difficult for potential adversaries to learn the whereabouts of U.S. ships. Thereafter, flat hats were embroidered with the legend “U.S. Navy.”

In old pictures, the flat hat and its accompanying hatband appear unremarkable. “In fact, the hat bands were very distinctive,” said retired Master Chief Petty Officer Al Crawford, who has studied the history of the headwear. “In early years, the hatbands came in many colors, including red, green, yellow and light blue.”

Flat Hat

William Sims Jr. salutes while awaiting the arrival of his father, Adm. William S. Sims, April 7, 1919. Sims Jr. is wearing a small-scale sailor’s uniform, replete with the distinctive “flat hat” that was worn by U.S. Navy sailors from 1852 until their retirement on April 1, 1963. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

“All three of my brothers and I wore them during World War II,” said retired Master Chief Petty Officer Allan LeBaron. “They were common in the 1st Naval District, headquartered in New Hampshire, because they were much warmer than the white hat in the winter.

“My father wore the hat in and around Boston in 1918. The hats in that era flared out quite far at the top. He said the hat was ‘girl-bait.’ The wider the flare the saltier you were.”

Crawford said he has seen a preserved example of a flat hat worn aboard the battleship USS Maine, famously blown up in the Havana harbor in Cuba on Feb. 15, 1898, in an incident that helped start the Spanish-American War. “The hatband accompanying the flat hat for this ship was green, with ‘USS Maine‘ written in gold,” Crawford said.

Coast Guardsmen wore the flat hat, too. “It was our dress hat for winter,” said retired Coast Guard Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Maurice Poulin. “Most of us were comfortable with the hat. It was easy to take care of. When you folded it, it was flat. You folded it and kept it under your mattress, pressed down.”

“My father wore the hat in and around Boston in 1918. The hats in that era flared out quite far at the top. He said the hat was ‘girl-bait.’ The wider the flare the saltier you were.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the hats were still a part of Navy attire, but were rarely seen.

“I was issued one but never wore it,” said former Aviation Machinist’s Mate Allan Meyne, who was in the Navy from 1956 to 1960. “We were never required to wear it, not even for inspection. It stayed in my sea locker.” Meyne said that was typical of the early Cold War years.

The Navy officially retired the flat hat on April 1, 1963.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • Ray Nicklin

    I think I was issued the ‘last flat hat’. I was the shortest in our company and last is lien to receive it.

    Now accepting offers (G)

  • Louis McCormick

    I am sure some one has one and I would like to own one

  • Diane M. Kelsey, CWO-3, U.S.N. (Ret.)

    We were told that the “flat hat”/”Donald Duck” was being done away with for the same reason that we were told not to wear our navy blue cap covers on our combination/”bucket” hats any longer, It was supposed to be for our safety, e.g., when we were crossing the street at night because white can be seen. I still have both my late dad and husband’s “flat hats”.

  • I was in the Navy from June, 1957 through mid-March, 1961. At Great Lakes NTC, we were issued Flat Hats
    as part of our regular ‘seabag issue’. We were told in one of the classes we took that the Flat Hats
    were outlawed in some states for safety reasons. The Flat Hat was only worn with the Dress Blue uniform,
    and if one was wearing their Pea-Coat at night, and the Flat Hat, you could not be seen while walking
    down a road until a driver was quite close. The White Hat was visible from much further away.

    We were told that we had to have the Flat Hat as part of a ‘full seabag issue’, but we would never be
    allowed to wear it for the above mentioned safety reasons.

    I just found my last set of Dress Blues, and wrapped up in it was my Flat Hat, not much different from
    when I got it in 1957. Probably a collectable in some quarters.

  • “Thank you” to everyone who commented on the Navy “Flat Hat” story. Yes, it appears that a “Flat Hat” in good condition today would be a collector’s item. One reason for writing this article was, very simply, my fascination with the period photograph that accompanies the article. But as several have pointed out, the hat was in use much later than the time of the photo. Your comments are welcome and appreciated.

  • Professor Sam Oakland

    If Ralph Irish would like to part with his Flat Hat I would be happy to send him a check — it would join my set of dress blues issued to me at Great Lakes in 1951, but now on display here in Oregon. My hat, now lost, served on the USS Princeton CV 37, and the USS Oriskany CV 34.

  • Laura Hawkins

    I was on here looking to find information about my grandfather. He was on the Iowa and I have his dark blue wool flat hat that has Iowa stitched on the band. I also have a spoon from the Iowa with the ship on it and Captain Evans on the top of it. I know very little as he died when my mom was 14 (he was 60 when she was born)! Anyway, if anyone on here could help me with ways to find out more how to find photos of him on ship? I do have photo of him in his uniform. Thanks.

  • Cliff Mulder

    Looking for hats to be donated to American Legion Post #258 . this Post uses this hat for their Offical hat (have hsitory which allows them to wear as their uniform hat) Post is all Navy/Marines. Need for current and future new memebers. Thank you.

  • I found a FLAT HAT in a surplus store in almost new condition,with us navy in gold on the band. The size is small but hope to have it sized to wear in special events.I served 1964 to 1968 . USS AMPHION AR13. Proud to be a sailor.