The ‘West Coast Stetson’ White Cap at the Smithsonian’s “America on the Move”

July 29, 2009

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There is a piece that stands out over the rest in the current exhibition “America on the Move” at the National Museum of American History: a white cap with a snap brim made for Stockton head-wear company Dorfman Pacific.

The main character of the story (picture) is Herb Mills, a longtime member and officer of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco. The Recordnet.com interviewed him and this is a hint:

He wore the cap for those purposes before donating it along with other artifacts from his maritime career, such as a hard hat and various cargo hooks, to the Smithsonian.

“I’ve got a white cap on right now,” Mills said Tuesday by telephone from his Berkeley home. “It’s a public acknowledgement that you’re a longshoreman.”

At union functions he would wear what once was a nearly universal uniform for dock workers, the “Stetson,” a blue-and-white striped work shirt called a “hickory” and black denim pants, “what we called back then Frisco jeans.”

The museum in particular focused on the transformation of the ports of San Francisco and Oakland from the 1960s to the 1970s as maritime transportation shifted largely from loose cargo to having nearly everything packed into standardized containers.

Where longshore workers once used hooks, hand trucks and pure muscle to move boxes, bales, bags, cases and pallets, oversized machines took over plucking the truck-trailer-size steel boxes from ships’ holds.

“San Francisco was the major port since the Gold Rush, and now there’s not an ounce of cargo that goes through there,” Mills said. Nearly all the trade has shifted to Oakland with its giant banks of container cranes.

Eight triangular sections of cloth form a circle and meet in a white button at the top. Often called the “West Coast Stetson,” this white cotton cap with a visor that snaps to the upper part of the cap was worn by West Coast mariners, particularly longshoremen and sailors. Black “Frisco” jeans and a “hickory,” a blue and white striped shirt, went along with this soft cap that was once a signature part of “the usual rig” that men wore to express their occupational identity. It also had a safety function: as they could be spotted even in the dark holds of ships by men on deck who were lifting and lowering heavy sling loads. By the early 1970s, it became obligatory to wear hardhats, since working aboard vessels and on the docks was a very risky occupation. Today, however, longshoremen still wear the “West Coast Stetson” at special union meetings and events.

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