National Museum of American History Accepts Red Hat Society Donation

July 29, 2010

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will receive a donation from the Red Hat Society, a women’s social organization that fosters a sense of joy and sisterhood. The gift includes a bright red fedora, the hat that initiated the founding of the Red Hat Society, and a purple-feather boa. Both accessories were owned by Sue Ellen Cooper, the founder and “Exalted Queen Mother” of the society; she donated them to the organization in 2002.

In the fall of 1997, Cooper purchased the old red fedora from a thrift shop in Tucson, Ariz., drawn by its low price and elegance. A year later, she presented a different red hat (fittingly also from a thrift store), along with a poem by Jenny Joseph titled “Warning,” to a friend celebrating her 55th birthday. The poem, which reads “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me,” verbalized the message Cooper intended for her friend, that growing older should be done playfully and on her own terms. That message affected the lives of the women Cooper encountered: the red hat became her signature gift, and its symbolism inspired them to don their own red hats. In 1998, at a tea party in Fullerton, Calif., the Red Hat Society was born. News about the women in purple and red spread rapidly, and in just five years there were more than 40,000 chapters worldwide.

“The Red Hat Society is a wonderful, one-of-a-kind example of American culture and tradition,” says Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “It is an organization that encourages strong bonds and living life to the fullest—ideas that are cherished by our society.”

The Red Hat Society stresses the importance of friendship and sisterhood, the value of play and the determination to find the good in life everywhere possible. Though the organization’s original focus was on women 50 or older, they now welcome members of all ages who wish to join in the fun. The “Red Hatters” don red hats and purple attire at all official society events, and they often wear flashy red accessories such as gloves and feather boas.

The red hat and feather boa are symbols of an interdenominational, interracial, intergenerational and international women’s social organization that provides a sense of cohesion and stability in women’s lives. The museum records the development and rise of fraternal societies and organizations such as the YMCA/YWCA, the Masons, Boy and Girl Scouts and fire-fighting societies through a collection of objects that symbolize these organizations’ missions.               

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, the museum explores stories of freedom and justice, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).