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White Hat Day by K. H.

1873

On one of the last days in September we were the astonished recipients of a singular and mysterious invitation from a member of the New York Board of Brokers. The note contained words like these: "Come to the Exchange on Monday, September 30th: white hats are declared confiscated on that day."

It would have puzzled Oedipus or a Philadelphia lawyer to trace the connection between white hats and stocks, to tell what Hecuba was to them or they to Hecuba, and why they should be more interfered with by the New York Stock Exchange on the 30th of September than upon any other day. It is true that during the last summer some slight political bias was supposed to be hidden beneath that popular headpiece irreverently styled "a Greeley plug," but then stocks are not politics, nor would any but a punster trace an intimate connection between hats and polls. A story has gone through the papers, to be sure, about an unfortunate deacon who found it impossible to collect the coppers of the congregation in a Greeley hat, but then slight excuses have been made available on charitable occasions before the present election, and we decline to accept the sentiment of that congregation as unmixed devotion to the Republican candidates. They did not wish to Grant their money, that was all.

And then, again, unlike the miller of the old conundrum, men generally wear white hats to keep their heads cool; with which laudable endeavor why should the Stock Exchange wish to interfere? One never hears of a "corner" in hats. And then, too, was it the bulls or the bears who objected to them? Bulls, we all know, have an aversion to scarlet drapery, but Darwin, in his studies of the feeling for color among animals, has omitted any references to a horror of white hats even among the most accomplished of the anthropoid apes.

Pondering all these problems, and many more, our puzzled trio went to the Stock Exchange on the last day of September. We were conducted into the safe seclusion of the Visitors' Gallery, from which coign of vantage we could look down unharmed upon the frantic multitude below. The room is large and very lofty, its prevailing tint a warm brown, relieved by bright decorations of the Byzantine order. Across one end runs a small gallery for visitors, without seats, and some twenty feet above the floor, and opposite the gallery is a raised platform, with a long table and majestic arm-chairs for the president and other officers of the Board. High on the wall above these elevated dignitaries glitters in large gold letters the mystic legend, "New York Stock Exchange." On the left of the platform stands a large blackboard, whereon the fluctuations in stocks are recorded, and around the sides of the room are displayed various signs bearing the names of different stocks (like the banners of the knights in royal chapels), beneath which eager groups collect. At the lower end of the room, under the Visitors' Gallery, are seats whereon weary brokers may repose after the brunt of battle. In the centre of the upper end of the vast apartment is a long oval cock-pit—if it may be so called—of two or three degrees, with a table in the lowest circle. It is so arranged as to give the brokers, standing upon the graded steps, full opportunity to see and to be seen. On the table, in singular contrast with the spirit of the place, was a large and beautiful basket of flowers. Anything more painfully incongruous it would be difficult to imagine. The poor flowers seemed to wear an air of patient suffering as they wasted their sweetness on that (literally) howling wilderness.

It was just after ten, and the doors had been open but a few moments when we entered the gallery, already quite full of ladies and gentlemen—generally very young gentlemen, anxious to learn from the glorious example of their elders. The floor below us was fast being strewn with torn bits of paper, which have to be swept up several times a day. Eager groups were gathered under the various signs upon the walls and pillars, apparently playing the Italian game of morra, to judge by the quick gestures of their restless fingers. Some were scribbling cabalistic signs on little bits of paper, and almost all were howling like maniacs or wild beasts half starved. The only place I was ever in at all to be compared with it in volume and variety of noise is the parrot-room in the London Zoological Gardens. Bedlam and Pandemonium I have not visited—as yet—and consequently cannot speak from personal experience. But the parrots in that awful house in Regent's Park are capable of making more hideous noises in a given moment than any other wild beasts in the world, except brokers. Here the human animal comes out triumphantly supreme.

To add to the refreshing variety of the din, long, lanky youths in gray sauntered about like the keepers of the carnivora, and bawled incessantly till they were red in the face. These, we were told, were the pages, who reported the state of the market and delivered orders and commissions. To the uninitiated they were a fraud and a delusion, but so was the whole thing. A crowd of men, walking about or standing in groups, note-book in hand, talking eagerly or yelling unintelligible nonsense at the top of their voices, and gesticulating with the fury of madmen, while in and around the crowd strolled those extraordinary pages, calmly shouting full in the brokers' faces,—this, we were told, was "business!" This is the mysterious occupation to which our friends, countrymen and lovers devote so large a portion of their time and thoughts. At this strange diversion millions of dollars change hands in a few hours, and bulls and bears in this little nest agree to make things generally uncomfortable and uncertain for the outside world.

But where were the white hats, and what of their daring wearers? As the crowd thickened, they began to shine out upon the general blackness in obvious distinction. At first, the howling multitude, eager for filthy lucre, took no particular notice of them beyond an occasional hurried poke or pat, but this delusive mildness did not long continue. After the first fifteen or twenty minutes, during which the favorite stocks had been danced up and down a few times, like so many crying babies, the appetite of the hundred-headed hydra abated a little, and the general attention to business relaxed. Suddenly—no one knew whence or wherefore—up rose a white hat in the air, high above the heads of the people, and a bareheaded individual was seen struggling wildly in the arms of the mob, who set up ironical cheers at his unavailing efforts to regain his flying headpiece. It rose and fell faster and farther than any fancy stock of them all, now soaring to the vaulted roof, now being kicked along the dusty floor.

Press where ye see my white hat shine amidst the ranks of war,

seemed to be the sentiment of the occasion, as the unruly mob swayed and struggled about the dilapidated victim of their sport. In one corner stood a quiet, dignified gentleman, talking sedately to a little knot of friends. He wore a tall white "stove-pipe" of the most obnoxious kind. In a twinkling it was seized and sent flying toward the roof with its softer predecessor. Its owner gave one glance over his shoulder, and "smiled a sickly smile," while it was very evident that

The subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

The fun grew fast and furious, the air was literally darkened with flying hats of every shape and size, but all white. The stout tall beavers were converted into footballs till their crowns were kicked out and their brims torn off, when they were seized upon as instruments for further torture. Some innocent member of the large fraternity, now, to use a nautical phrase, scudding under bare polls, was pounced upon, and over his unfortunate head the crownless hat was drawn till the ragged remnant of its brim rested upon his shoulders. One poor creature was thus bonneted with at least three tiers of hats, and was last seen on the edge of the cockpit struggling with imminent suffocation.

At the height of the howling, scuffling, kicking and fighting a short diversion was effected. A tall and portly broker appeared upon the scene in an entire suit of new broadcloth. It was unmistakably new, its brilliancy quite undimmed. Instantly a rush was made for him by the fickle crowd. They swept him, as by some mighty wave, into the centre of the room: they turned him round and round like a pivoted statue, and examined him and patted him approvingly on every side. Then they made a large ring round him and gave him three cheers. Not content with this, with one sudden impulse they rushed at him again, and tried to lift him upon the table, that they might see him better. But this the portly broker resisted: he fought like a good fellow, and the crowd, tired of struggling with a man of so much weight, gave one final cheer and went back to the chase of the white hats.

We stayed about half an hour to watch these elegant and refined diversions: at the end of that time our patience and the white hats were giving out together. The din was deafening and the dust was rapidly rising. The floor was strewn with scraps of papers and the mangled remains of felt and beaver. Brimless hats and hatless brims, linings, bands, rent and tattered crowns, and ragged fragments of the fray, were all over the place. A writhing victim in gray, masked by a crownless hat, was struggling upon the table to the evident danger of those unhappy flowers; the president was calling across the tumult in stentorian tones; but the tumult refused to fall, and the imperturbable pages were bawling upon the skirts of the crowd with stolid pertinacity. The noise was terrific, the confusion indescribable.

We are often told that women are unfitted for business pursuits. If this was business, I should say decidedly they were. My acquaintance with women has been large and varied, but I have yet to see the woman whom I consider qualified to be a member of the New York Board of Brokers. I have been present at many gatherings composed entirely of women, from the "Woman's Parliament" to country sewing-societies, but never, even in that much-abused body, the New York Sorosis, have I seen a crowd of women, however excited, however frolicsome, however full of fun, capable of playing football with each other's bonnets even upon April Fools' Day. I am convinced that not even Miss Anthony or Mrs. Stanton would have hesitated to admit, had she been present on the auspicious occasion above recorded, that there are limits even to woman's sphere. Let her preach and practice, and sail ships, and make horse-shoes, and command armies, if she will, let her vote for all sorts of disreputable characters to be set over her, if she choose, but let her recognize the fact that between her and the gentle amenities of the New York Stock Exchange there is a great gulf fixed, which only the superior being man, with his lordly intellect, his keen morality and his exquisite and unvarying courtesy, can bridge over.