Under Your Hat
Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 25, 2015
It’s not every day that an idiom has as illustrious — or as convoluted — a history as the one that’s part of under your hat. When someone tells you to keep what they’re sharing with you under your hat, they expect you to keep their confidences and not betray their secrets.
Back in 1732, under the reign of King George III, Britain levied a tax against American colonists in the form of the Hat Act. Great Britain outlawed the manufacturing and exporting of hats in the colonies and made it illegal to engage in inter-colonial sale of hats. Hats were imported from Britain and were subjected to a heavy tax. This is an important bit of history to keep under your hat while the rest of the story unfolds.
The Reading Eagle newspaper edition of February 10, 1980 ran a column about photography that was authored by Holt Confer titled, “Keep It Under Your Hat.” Holt welcomed non-technical questions and column suggestions from readers, but this column while serious, also kept everything light. The first two paragraphs clearly set the tone for the column.
I’ll have to admit “Keep It Under Your Hat” is a strange name for a photography column. If you take a quick glance at the two photographs, the title will become a bit more relevant.
And if I tell you a few more “secrets” about photographic exposures (“secrets” I don’t mind if you pass along) then the title will be a lot more relevant.
During WWII, while the Americans ran with the campaign slogan that warned loose lips sank ships, people in the UK had their own slogan from 1940: Keep it under your hat. The campaign addressed every class — from working class to upper class — and drove home the point that anything a person knew, whether they thought it was important or not, was a danger to the men on the front lines if it what they knew was talked about.
In April 1925, the California Melody Syncopators released a 78 RPM record on Clover Records. The song was entitled, “Keep It Under Your Hat.” It was a re-release of the 1923 hit for the California Ramblers that was written by Eddie Cantor, Charles Tobias, and Louis Breau.
It was in Volume 20 of “Gleaning In Bee Culture” that the term was used in response to Chas. Israel’s Letter to the Editor dated New York, September 30, 1892. The author of the letter had read an article on honey adulteration written by Professor Cook, and he was concerned over a new law that went into effect on September 1, 1892 that addressed the issue of adulterated honey and maple sugar.
The matter of grades of honey, and feeding bees glucose to make their honey all that much sweeter, was also an issue, and he dragged Mr. W.J. Cullinan of Quincy, Illinois into his worries. And finally he references the “American Analyst” edition of June 18, 1892 where it was mentioned that some of the most reliable dealers of honey in the United States was selling adulterated honey! The response from the Editor included this passage.
We know of just one who did do it, as above-mentioned, and possibly there may be a few others; but their number, as compared with honest honey-producers who feel aggrieved and injured because of the mixing on the part of the city chaps is as nothing. Now, if we are wrong in our assumption — and possibly we are — we want the brethren everywhere to speak right out. If you do not wish to have your name as informant mentioned in connection with the matter, nor any thing done about it at all, say so; at any rate, tell us where you know of a producer who is engaged in the mixing business, and we will keep it “under our hat” if you say so.
The spirit of under your hat is found in the novel, “The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy” by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (18 July 1811 – 24 December 1863) and published in 1848. There, in the chapter entitled, “More Storms In The Puddle” readers find this passage:
The old grandmother crooning in the corner and bound to another world within a few months, has some business or cares which are quite private and her own — very likely she is thinking of fifty years back, and that night when she made such an impression, and danced a cotillon with the captain before your father proposed for her: or, what a silly little over-rated creature your wife is, and how absurdly you are infatuated about her — and, as for your wife — O philosophic reader, answer and say — Do you tell her all? Ah, sir — a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine — all things in nature are different to each — the woman we look at has not the same features, the dish we eat has not the same taste to the one and the other — you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow-islands a little more or less near to us.
French chronicler Jean de Vennette (1308 – 1370) wrote that the British soldiers at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 protected their bows by putting the strings on their heads under their helmets. At the time of the Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346), the preferred bow for military purposes was the longbow. The bow-staves were a single piece of straight-grained yew, and unstrung, the bow was six feet long and tapered. Bow strings were waxed and oiled to keep them weather-proof and flexible.
While it’s true that the bowmen kept their strings under their helmets, it was no secret about where the bowmen kept their strings, and keeping strings dry isn’t the same as keeping secrets. It is highly unlikely that keeping something under your hat has anything to do with the Battle of Crécy or bowmen.
“The Adventurer” was a journal where John Hawkesworth (1715 – November 16, 1773) was the editor and principal writer from 7 November 1752 through to March 1754, and was the successor to Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784). In all, about seventy papers written by John Hawkesworth were included in the four volume series published in 1793. In Volume IV of this collection, the spirit of the idiom is implied in this passage:
By a sudden stroke of conjuration, a great quantity of gold might be conveyed under his hat.
The dictionary defines conjuration as an illusory feat that could be considered magical by those who were unfamiliar with the trickery. In other words, hocus pocus, legerdemain, prestidigitation, sleight of hand. If one was adept at conjuration, there was considerable money to be made as long as the secret of the magic involved was kept locked up inside the person’s head which, of course, back in the day, would have been covered by a hat.
This indicates that the early beginnings of keeping information under your hat cropped up in the early 1750s, twenty or so years after the Hat Act of 1732. Whether the idiom is as a result of John Hawkesworth’s writings or the Hat Act of 1732, Idiomation pegs the expression to the mid-1700s. Of course, if any of our readers know differently, please share in the Comments section below. After all, there’s no reason to keep that information under your hat, is there?