Back in 2008 I posted about hats, quoting from Diana Crane’s The Social Meanings of Hats and T-shirts, where we read that “The bowler was invented in England in 1850 as an occupational hat for gamekeepers and hunters but was rapidly adopted by the upper class for sports”; what Crane inexplicably doesn’t mention is the origin of the term, which Nabokov explains in his invaluable notes for Anna Karenin(a):

In 1850, there appeared a hard hat with a low crown designed by William Bowler, an English hatter, and this was the original model of the bowler, or derby—its American name stemming from the fact that the Earl of Derby wore a gray bowler with a black band to the English races. It was generally adopted in the seventies.

As irritated as I sometimes get with the imperious aristo VVN, I deeply admire his insistence on getting details right (the OED, in an unrevised entry from 1887, gives an erroneous alternative derivation from the noun bowl, “quasi bowl-hat” [see comments below]) and his eagerness to share them. Here’s his thorough description of the train car in which Anna returns from Moscow to St. Petersburg:

Roughly speaking, two notions of night-traveling comfort were dividing the world in the last third of the century: the Pullman system in America, which favored curtained sections and which rushed sleeping passengers feet foremost to their destination; and the Mann system in Europe, which had them speed sidewise in compartments; but in 1872, a first-class car (euphemistically called sleeping-car by Tolstoy) of the night express between Moscow and Petersburg was a very primitive affair still wavering between a vague Pullman tendency and Colonel Mann’s “boudoir” scheme. It had a lateral corridor, it had water closets, it had stoves burning wood; but it also had open-end platforms which Tolstoy calls “porches” (krylechki), the vestibule housing not having yet been invented. Hence the snow driving in through the end doors when conductors and stove-tenders passed from car to car. Night accommodations were draughty sections, semi-partitioned off from the passage, and it is evident from Tolstoy’s description that six passengers shared one section (instead of the four in sleeping compartments of a later day). The six ladies in the “sleeping” section reclined in fauteuils, three facing three, with just enough space between opposite fauteuils to permit the extension of footrests. As late as 1892, Karl Baedeker speaks of first-class cars on that particular line as having fauteuils which can be transformed into beds at night but he gives no details of the metamorphosis, and anyway, in 1872, the simulacrum of full-length repose did not include any bedding. To comprehend certain important aspects of Anna’s night journey, the reader should clearly visualize the following arrangement: Tolstoy indiscriminately calls the plush seats in the section either “little divans” or “fauteuils”; and both terms are right since, on each side of the section, the divan was divided into three armchairs. Anna sits facing north, in the right-hand (south-east) window corner, and she can see the left-hand windows, across the passage. On her left she has her maid Annushka (who this time travels with her in the same section, and not second-class, as she had on her journey to Moscow) and on the other side, further west, there is a stout lady, who being closest to the passage on the left-hand side of the section, experiences the greatest discomfort from heat and cold. Directly opposite Anna, an old invalid lady is making the best she can of the sleeping arrangements; there are two other ladies in the seats opposite to Anna, and with these she exchanges a few words (p. 118).

It must have taken a tremendous amount of work to extract all that information from the sources available to him in those pre-internet days, and it is invaluable when reading the chapter; furthermore, he supplemented it with a diagram, which you can see here (scroll down). And just before that extended note, there’s a brief one on the bell system which is a delightful example of his playful prose:

The three Russian station bells had already become in the seventies a national institution. The first bell, a quarter of an hour before departure, introduced the idea of a journey to the would-be passenger’s mind; the second, ten minutes later, suggested the project might be realized; immediately after the third, the train whistled and glided away (p. 118).

It’s a crying shame he never completed the annotated edition of the novel he was planning; as it is, we have notes for only the first of the eight parts.


  1. Though note that most modern bowler hats are soft rather than hard.

    Reminds me also of ‘hat trick’, associated with another type of ‘bowler’:

    2. a. Cricket. A feat accomplished by a bowler in taking three wickets with three successive balls. Originally with reference to the reward of a new hat, or an equivalent prize, given to the bowler by his club for the achievement.

    Thence extended to other sports.

  2. the vestibule housing not having yet been invented

    Wikipedia tells us “The first vestibuled train was introduced on June 15, 1887, on the inaugural run of the Pennsylvania Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad, forerunner of the famous Broadway Limited.” I hadn’t realized how significant the change was:

    During the 1880s and 1890s, the slogan “Vestibuled Train” was a magic term to railroad publicity departments everywhere. More importantly, this development brought into existence the “train” in the sense we know it today — no longer a series of cars coupled together and pulling together, but a continuous unit for human uses. … A whole new way of thinking about rail travel developed. You could eat and sleep on trains and [arrive] in a fraction of the previous time.

  3. Interesting; I didn’t know that it was introduced so late.

  4. AJP Crown says

    Coincidentally in the past couple of days I’ve read about a place I’d never heard of: Bad Homburg, on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Evidence here (it’s a boring piece). According to the Wiki hat article,

    The name originates from Bad Homburg in Hesse, Germany, from where it originates [sic, sic, dammit] and was popularised in the late 19th century by King Edward VII.

    I’ve never liked this in-between-a-bowler-and-a-top-hat hat. It should keep its full name, “The king was wearing a bad homburg”.

  5. David Marjanović says

    So, just a default hat? Ein Hut an sich?

  6. The OED might not have been wrong. At least one other source is skeptical that bowler is eponymous, and posits that it derives from bowl, due to its shape and use. It adduces the Anglo-Saxon word heafodbolla (skull; literally, head bowl) in support, and notes that the earliest uses found are not capitalized.

    Although there are articles of 19th C clothing named after people. Cardigan sweaters, for one, and pink coats for another. So Mr. Bowler isn’t impossible.

  7. At least one source is skeptical that bowler is eponymous, and posits that it derives from bowl

    I get exactly the opposite message from that paragraph: the manufacturer is given first, and thus presumptively the source; then “But perhaps the word is simply from bowl…”

  8. But there doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence of the hat being named for a person, only that there were at least two Mr Bowlers, John and William, who might have been the perpetrator. Bowler’s not a particularly uncommon name, I think (unlike Crapper).

  9. David Marjanović says

    “said to be” sounds like plenty of skepticism to me, even without a definitive statement that it’s more likely from bowl.

  10. OK, I’ve softened the statement in my post.

  11. Hat –
    Like David M, I read “said to be” as evincing skepticism. Perhaps my use of “posits” is too strong. I have always used posit to mean hypothesize, but I find to my surprise that dictionaries define it to mean, first, “assume to be true,” and only as a subsidiary definition “propose as an explanation, suggest.”

    And anyway it was good excuse to introduce the word “headbowl,” which is something you might find in an xkcd strip.

  12. Owlmirror says

    Serendipitously seen today: Dirty Tricks of the French Apache

    An interesting weapon of defence was the bowler hat. Originally designed as a durable head covering for Gillies and field workers, the bowler became an indispensable fashion accessory for the European gentleman. The hat was so strong that instructors of self-defence taught its use as an improvised buckler to guard against knife attacks. Techniques included a combination of bowler hat and walking stick, with some of the skills used resembling those of the Renaissance sword and buckler. Another combination was the bowler hat and Le couteau ( knife), which may have been influenced by the Sevillian schools of knife fighting.

    I see that bartitsu has already been posted upon here.

  13. AJP Crown says

    Bowler’s not a particularly uncommon name, I think (unlike Crapper).

    I’ve never met a Bowler but my music teacher was Mr Crapp. I’ve heard Crapp was a fairly common name in the northwest of England roughly from Hampstead to Stanmore.

  14. dammit — yes, yes, whence sounds better, but what can you do? (And I assume you just wanted from at the end of the phrase, but when did truth ever stop a facetious comment?)

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Just “where it originated” will suffice. No “froms” or “whences” needed.

  16. AJP Crown says

    What Stu said. Also to proofread wiki may be futile, but isn’t anyone disturbed by The name originates…where it originates?

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Someone is disturbed, that’s for sure. Not me. It must be the author(s) of that sentence.

  18. FWIW, a little searching did not turn up any use of “bowler hat” earlier than the 1849/1850 story. That story is accepted in Fred Miller Robinson, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). The name seems so far not to have caught on (in print uses) until c.1861. And it was not highly regarded in all cases. Also OED may be mistaken in suggesting it was identical with the earlier billy-cock, which, further, may not have anything to do with William Coke.

  19. Also, the earliest uses of bowler hat I’ve seen so far are not in sporting contexts.

  20. John Cowan says

    may not have anything to do with William Coke

    Unlikely, I’d say, as Coke is just an archaic spelling of Cook. A modern continuation of Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale” has a line in it which I cherish: “I am the Coke, but cook ye now no fable”.

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