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To Cap It All Off… A Fond Look at a Navy Trademark: Uses (and Abuses) of the "Dixie Cup"
It can be squared, rolled, crushed, fitted with "gull wings" or simply worn as it comes from small stores. It can be used as a flotation device or a sun shield or even, some claim, as a dog food dish. With its many shapes and uses, it may be the most versatile article of clothing a Navy enlisted man wears.
According to Naval Historian John Reilly, "The 'dixie cup'-style hat has appeared and reappeared in the Navy as part of the uniform since it was first written into the uniform regulations of 1886."
That year, the white canvas hat became the replacement for the straw hat previously worn during the warm weather months. The Navy needed a practical summer hat that was easy to clean and stow, cheap to manufacture and comfortable to wear. During the winter, sailors continued to wear a flat, black hat.
Current Navy uniform regulations say the hat must be worn "with the lower front edge approximately one-half inch above the eyebrows and not crushed or bent in the middle." That leaves a lot of possibilities.
By reshaping the white hat or "dixie cup" to suit their personal style, enlisted sailors have been able, for more than 100 years, to express some measure of individuality in a uniform world.
Uniform regulations may technically forbid such stylistic reshaping, but few sailors can resist.
"When I first put the white hat on, it felt like a bowl sitting on top of my head," said Data Processor 1st Class Eddie Hawes of Navy Headquarters Information Center, Washington, D.C. "I thought, 'There must be something I could do to change it.' The way I put crimps in it made it different from anyone else's."
The tradition of personalizing the white hat hasn't changed much in more than 25 years, according to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Avionics Technician Master Chief (AW) Duane R. Bushey. "The white hat is like putty - you can mold different characters out of it," he said. "I wanted my hat to be completely round. I wanted it to droop a bit, so I'd roll it down halfway to loosen it up."
Master Chief Hospital Corpsman Jerry Robinson, Command Master Chief at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, recalled how he wore his white hat. "I rolled the top quarter edge. It would flare out and have a flat edge to it. It took a lot of time and care to keep it that way."
Most sailors usually find it hard work to get their white hats just exactly the way they like them.
"Although I have six hats, I only wear the one I've been working on," said Yeoman 2nd Class Jerry Bradley, a Vice Chief of Naval Operations staff yeoman in Washington, D.C. "It's softened up and fits better," he said. "I get attached to one hat at a time."
There may be many different ways to wear a white hat, but there are just as many different nicknames - "squid lid," "dog dish" and "Mason jar top" - these and many other terms have been handed down over the decades. Aviation Electronics Technician Airman Apprentice Doug Paige of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., remembers why his white hat was called a "dog dish."
"When I was in 'A' school, every time I went to the EM [Enlisted Men's] club I had to watch out for Marines. They would steal any sailor's hat - said they used it as a dish to feed their mascot," said Paige. "I had to buy nine hats while I was there!"
But despite the unflattering nicknames and occasional abuse, the white hat has gained high status over the generations - it has become a symbol of the Navy. The dixie cup is so recognizable that Hollywood uses it as a prop in movie scenes shot in train stations, bus stations and airports.
"The Navy's white hat is much more easily identified than other military uniforms," said CAPT Michael Sherman, Director of Navy Office of Information, Los Angeles, noting that sailors are synonymous with travel and white hats are synonymous with sailors. "People expect to see them in areas of transit," he said.
The dixie cup has been so reliable that it was phased out only once this century. July 1, 1973, marked the beginning in of some major Navy uniform changes. The results of a Navy-wide study, begun in December 1970, indicated that most sailors wanted a change in their uniforms. The white hat was given up for lost when it was replaced by a CPO [Chief Petty Officer] type hat known as a "combination cover."
But the combination hat was never completely accepted by personnel E-6 and below. Yeoman 1st Class Pete Martinez, currently assigned to the Assistant Secretary for Organizational Matters and Administrative Services, Washington, D.C., remembers when he joined the Navy in 1975 and the mixed feelings he had about not wearing the white hat.
"I had always pictured the typical sailor looking like the poster than had the old 'salty' sailor on it. The white hat looked sharp," said Martinez. "I didn't like it when I was issued the combo cover."
The MCPON [Master Chief Petty officer of the Navy] remembers that ambiguity. "Most sailors wanted a uniform change," added Bushey, "and I felt that way too, but I also felt awkward wearing the combination cover as an E-6. The novelty of it wore off in two or three months - I missed my white hat."
Everybody missed it. According to Robinson, "The public probably had a harder time accepting the change than the sailors. They were used to seeing the sailor on a 'Cracker Jack' box."
There was another problem. Ships weren't prepared to provide enough storage space for the combination covers. "The only extra space the Navy added for the new uniforms were a few peacoat lockers they installed on board ships," said Robinson. "One of the 'gifts' sailors E-6 and below had was the extra space they had when they were wearing white hats and 'cracker jack' uniforms. I could probably store half a dozen or so white hats to every one combination cover."
Bushey agreed, "It's much harder to store a combination cover than it is to store the white hat. The combination cover gets crunched or flattened out," he said, "but the white hat never loses its shape."
There are public relations advantages to the dixie cups, too. "After the white hats were phased back in," recalled Bushey, who was a chief at the time, "I was standing in the San Francisco airport, in uniform. A civilian approached me and said, 'I just want to tell you how sharp the sailors look today.' He had watched the transition from the white hats to the combination covers and back again and was glad to see a sailor 'look like a sailor, again.'"
Everyone agrees that white hats look sharp; the question - today, as it has been for decades - is how to keep them that way.
Keeping the white hat white is important to sailors. The tricks sailors use to clean their dixie cups are as individual and varied as the shape of the hat.
"If my hats get minor stains," said Bradley, "I soak them in bleach and run a toothbrush over the spots. You're supposed to brush with the grain so the hat doesn't fray. Then I throw them in the washing machine with my whites and put them in the dryer."
It wasn't always that easy to clean the white hat. Sailors in boot camp in the '60s learned a different technique to keep their dixie cups in "sat" condition for inspection.
Bushey recalled, "I went to boot camp in San Diego in 1962. We would really scrub hard with a scrub brush, a toothbrush and Wisk to get the ring out of the inside. Then, we would attach a 'tie-tie' to the tag. Once attached, we would dip the hats in the toilet and flush." (A tie-tie is a piece of cord with metal tabs on each end that the Navy issued to sailors to hang their laundry).
But if cleaning efforts required by the white hats are high, at least replacement costs are low. If a captain's hat and a sailor's white hat are both blown overboard, the captain has to pay over $40 to replace his hat, while the sailor is back in business for $2.60.
Approximately 140,000 white hats are made each month for the Defense Personnel Support Center. The hats are then stored in defense depots in Mechanicsburg, Pa.; Memphis, Tenn.; Ogden, Utah and Tracy, Calif. The hats remain in the depots until DPSC [Defense Personnel Support Center] distributes them to uniform shops throughout the Navy.
It may surprise some to learn that such an American symbol as the Navy white hat isn't made in the United States. Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, is the home of Propper International, Inc., the company that has been making white hats for the DPSC for the last 10 years.
Seventy-five rows of stitching keep the brim of the dixie cup stiff. The brims are made on an automatic brim stitcher and the crown is put together on a sewing machine. When the two parts are completed they are stitched together using the sewing machine. The three-part operation takes about seven and a half minutes.
Something assembled so quickly nonetheless has proven to be very durable in popularity.
The white hat has remained a popular item with the civilian public. "I constantly get requests for white hats because they are unique to the U.S. Navy," said Bradley. "Some people even steal them out of my car."
"Traditionally, the white hat means a lot," said Bushey. "When the ship left the pier, we used to roll our hats and throw them to our girlfriends or wives. It was our way of leaving a part of ourselves behind."
Whether squared, rolled or worn with a stiff brim, the white hat gives American sailors their special individuality worldwide. "To me," Bradley said, "the white hat is a symbol of the Navy and it's always going to be."
Source: Hensgen, Marke A. "To Cap It All Off …A Fond Look at a Navy Trademark: Uses (and Abuses) of the 'Dixie Cup.'" All Hands 860 (November 1988): 33-35.