In Old Cincinnati, Having a Big Head Earned Rewards

First prize for a 1916 big-head contest was, no surprise, a new hat.

Do you have any idea of your hat size? Not small, medium, large—your actual numeric hat size? There was a time when that was an essential datum, as important as your height and weight, because everyone wore hats. No one was considered properly dressed outdoors unless they had a hat perched upon their head.

This contraption was used by hatmakers to accurately determine a customer’s hat size.

Cincinnati Post (May 1916), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Of course, the ubiquity of hats led to a fair amount of speculation about whether the style of your hat or the size of your hat or the manner in which you wore it expressed anything personal about you. Richard “Deacon” Smith, editor of The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, for example, wore his distinctive hat in such an idiosyncratic style that it served to readily identify him. An anonymous hatter told The Cincinnati Penny Paper [November 15, 1882]:

“Deacon Smith, on clear days, wears an immensely tall silk hat poised on the back of his head. So accustomed is his wife to see his hat in this position that when he came home about 3 o’clock one morning from a temperance meeting where he had disturbed the equipoise of his plug and cocked it over one eye, she did not know him, and refused to let him in until he had been identified.”

The unnamed hatter also dished on the city’s other editors. Murat Halstead of The Commercial wore “a tall, bell-shaped silk hat, which was ‘called in’ several years ago.” (In other words, very much out of style.) John McLean of The Enquirer “covers his caput with a dainty little lah-de-dah derby.”

On his 1900 trip to Cincinnati, William Angus Drogo “Kim” Montagu, Ninth Duke of Manchester, stopped by the police station and toured the Bertillon Room. There, using the latest biometric systems as promulgated by French detective Alphonse Bertillon, trained officers recorded detailed measurements of criminals and suspects for positive identification. The Duke (who, through his marriage to Cincinnati heiress Helena Zimmerman, may have inspired the creators of Downton Abbey) insisted on being processed. According to the cops, he had the largest hat size ever measured in Cincinnati.

Although the Bertillon technicians noted the Duke’s perceptive qualities, well-developed ideality, and good conscientious faculties, they did not suggest that his large head implied any significant intellectual advantage. Although it was common, back then, to associate big heads with big thoughts, science had resolved that there was no correlation. The Cincinnati Post [November 17, 1915] answered a reader who inquired about this association:

“Where there are many nerve cells there’s an active brain, a brilliant mind. But nerve cells may be crowded into a small brain or spread over a large brain. So you see a man’s hat band is no index to the quality of his mind.”

Despite science, Cincinnati remained fascinated by big heads, and a search for the biggest head in the city was regularly conducted. The Main Street Merchants’ Association included a big-head contest among the entertainments at their annual Coney Island outing in 1924. The biggest head would earn, of course, a hat.

The Cincinnati Post ran a citywide big-head contest in 1916. First prize was a $5 straw boater, a price that would equal $120 in today’s money. The catch was that contestants had to be officially measured at the newspaper’s offices and that disqualified some potentially gargantuan domes, as The Post reported on May 13, 1916:

“Friends of an employe of the Mohawk Brewery reported that he wears a No. 9 hat. But he was unable to conform to the rules, which required the entrant to appear in person at The Post’s office, and therefore he could not be considered.”

To put this lost contestant into perspective, “normal” head circumferences, measured at the temples, range from about 21 inches to about 25 inches. A 21-inch head would wear a 6 3/4 or small hat, and a 25-inch head would take a size 8 or extra-extra-large.

No one in Cincinnati had a bigger head than Arthur Brinkman, as measured by judges at The Cincinnati Post.

Cincinnati Post (May 1916), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

More than 100 contestants showed up at Post Square to have their craniums recorded. The first entrant, John F. Royal, manager of Cincinnati’s Keith Theater, presented himself for judgment within an hour after he learned of a job promotion in the Keith organization. Surely he hoped the good news would cause his head to swell a bit.

A local wag sent a postcard stating that he wore only a 5 7/8 hat but his wife always told him he had a big head. The Post was amused enough to print the gag, but disqualified the contestant.

The contest winner turned out to be Arthur Brinkman, a tobacco salesman living in Oakley. His hat size was clocked at an impressive 8 1/4, reflecting a cranial circumference of 26 1/4 inches. Brinkman, like many other contestants, complained that Cincinnati’s hat stores did not carry an adequate selection of large sizes. He told The Post:

“I never doubted for one moment that I would win. The moment I heard of this contest, I said to myself, ‘Well, here’s a cinch.’ I’ll venture one thing—they’ll have to get my $5 straw by special order from the factory. That’s the way it always is with us big-headed men.”

Brinkman’s spiffy new hat seems to have swayed a young lady’s affections, as he married Luella Zahn that fall. He later took up farming and moved to Clermont County.

The Post [July 22, 1919] reported that hatmakers throughout the country had a shortage of hats in the larger sizes and a surplus of hats in smaller sizes. It was unclear whether men’s heads were actually getting larger or if men were asking for larger sizes because of comfort.

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