Time Period: 1951

Category: Accessories - Hat

Accession Number: 1957.22.12

Donor: L. Coyne


Fashioned of fulled wool, this hat hails from 1950s Germany. An eleven-rowed band of beads encircles its 54.6 centimeter circumference, stylistically reminiscent of Native American designs. The base of the hat bears signs of wear, with frayed areas scattered along its rim. Alternating fields of red and black approximately 10.2 centimeters wide lie above this belt, each adorned with a beaded flower. The colors of these flowers depend on that of the surrounding area. Those on red fields are green and baby blue highlighted with orange and navy blue, while those on black feature blue stems with gold petals interspersed with white and pink details. Several elements of the hat display that it was handmade. As the patterns of the belt progress through color and design changes, the bead count of each section remains equal. However, there is no standard for the number of beads in several of the flowers’ details, particularly the petals. These irregularities show that the hat’s creator could maintain the symmetry of basic patterns, but had to approximate when tackling more complex designs. These irregularities would not occur in the standardized designs of textiles manufactured by machines.

The interior of the hat is divided into two sections that roughly correlate with the positions of the exterior’s beaded belt and colored fields. A purple floral pattern makes up the lower area, while a brown-and-tan plaid encompasses the upper. A red circle made of the same fulled wool as the hat’s exterior sits at the interior’s epicenter. Two tags affixed to the hat with white string hang out of the inside. The first reads “In memory of Sister Sara. MAN’S CAP, entirely handmade. Purchased ca. 1951, Germany,” and the second “Dept. TCRA URI CtCA, NATIONAL GERMAN, 12. Given by: Li Coyne 12/57.”


This hat stands unique among postwar German textiles. As a handmade item, it can provide a glimpse into the culture that produced it, or even the perspectives and passions of its creator. For example, Iroquois designs probably inspired its beadwork. The band around the base appears to be an emulation of raised beading. This technique groups the beads unevenly, causing some to bunch up into raised clusters. The Iroquois have traditionally used beadwork to decorate clothing, with designs ranging in complexity from geometric patterns to depictions of their creation story[1] . The patterns on this hat present a typical example of such designs, although the resemblance of the floral sections to a fleur-de-lis may stand somewhat telling of its European origin.

Although this Iroquois beadwork may seem unusual on a German hat, its presence proves unremarkable given Germany’s history with Karl May’s Winnetou novels. Published in the late nineteenth century, these adventure serials have molded the German view of Native American culture for over a century. They follow the travels of the fictional Apache chief Winnetou and his German sidekick Old Shatterhand across the American West as the duo right wrongs and fight the decline of Winnetou’s culture at the hands of foreign aggressors. Interestingly, the series seems to exclude Germans from the ranks of these invading whites. As Katrin Sieg observes in Ethnic Drag, “they construct the legend of the German explorer/emigrant as an impassioned yet fair arbiter of colonial atrocities. Where other whites have done nothing but wreak havoc, the German ‘westmen’ try to repair the damage and punish the wrongdoers… they are there to see justice done and help the red man in his plight, not to enrich themselves materially or make sexual conquests.”[2] Despite the enormous influence of his novels, May never visited America until the last years of his life. This did little to reduce his popularity. With over 100 million books sold, he still stands as the most popular German novelist of all time, and among his readers rank Kaiser Wilhelm II, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Adolf Hitler[3] .

May’s novels have remained a cultural landmark of Germany for over a century. The stories have been adapted for both screen and stage, and festivals dedicated to celebrating May’s work still muster huge turnouts. Some fans take their hobby to the next level, attempting to recreate the lifestyle of nineteenth century Native Americans in contemporary Germany. These enthusiasts live out of tepees on the weekends, abstaining from modern conveniences and referring to each other by names like “White Wolf.”[4] The practice has sparked controversy in some Native American communities. One Ojibwe man, David Redbird Baker, thinks the hobbyists have taken their pastime too far. To him, “in claiming the right to improvise on the most sacred rituals, [the hobbyists] have begun to develop a sense of ownership over Native culture. They’ve held dances where anyone in modern dress is barred from attending—even visiting Natives. They buy sacred items like eagle feathers and add them to their regalia. They’ve even allowed women to dance during their ‘moon time’… the equivalent of a cardinal sin.”[5]

Although many Native Americans would like the May enthusiasts to drop their hobby, this seems unlikely to happen in the near future. The Winnetou novels had a profound influence on many of their Cold War upbringings, and a deep sense of nostalgia runs through their subculture. As Jürgen “Lonely Man” Michaelis puts it, “It was a little bit of adventure, an escape and romantic. From the books I saw it was a hard life being an Indian, and I identified with that. Indians could handle any situation with no resources, just like here. All this put the flame in me.”[6] The poverty that defined German life following World War II cemented Winnetou as an idol to many children, and the Cold War saw a resurgence in the popularity of May’s novels on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Although Soviet officials banned the books in East Germany, they survived through copies smuggled and reproduced by fans. Eventually the government even began producing imitation Winnetou films and serials in an attempt to replace the novels with versions more accommodating to communist ideology.[7]

In West Germany, May’s books played into political moves against the Soviets. As American servicemen assigned to long term posts in the country brought their families along overseas, their superiors encouraged them to build relationships with the locals. American authorities wanted to distinguish their occupation from that of the Soviets, and they believed that finding a common cultural ground with the West Germans stood critical to accomplishing this. German officials also saw advantages of a strong partnership with the Americans. Although they still depended on foreign powers for economic relief, they wanted to present themselves as an asset against the Soviets, not a liability. Establishing close cultural ties with their allies would help make this distinction[8] . Given the sway the Winnetou novels traditionally held over the German perception of Americans, they doubtlessly played a role in interactions between the groups. In fact, this hat’s presence in URI’s textile collection may provide evidence of their influence.

Elizabeth Coyne donated this hat to the university after a 1951 trip to West Germany as a part of the European Recovery Program. She instructed women there on teaching, farming, and home management techniques, and liked to think of her work as “public relations.” From her perspective “if the women thought we had come to the country to force a change on them, they didn’t want it. But if they understood we could help them, they were keenly interested.”[9] She received the hat while abroad, possibly as a gift from one of the families she advised, or a purchase from a local merchant. In any case, that she took home a piece with such uniquely German-American connotations speaks volumes of the budding cultural alliance between the nations.


Reilly Hayes, TMD224H S14

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  1. ^ "Beadworking." Iroquois Indian Museum. 2014. Accessed March 31, 2014. http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/beadworking2.htm.
  2. ^ Sieg, Katrin. Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. 76.
  3. ^ Kimmelman, Michael. "Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou." Spiegel Online International, September 13, 2007. Accessed February 11, 2014. http://www.spiegel.de/international/fetishizing-native-americans-in-germany-wild-for-winnetou-a-505494.html
  4. ^ Lopinto, Noemi. "Der Indianer: Why do 40,000 Germans spend their weekends dressed as Native Americans?." UTNE Reader, May-June 2009. Accessed February 11, 2014. http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/germans-weekends-native-americans-indian-culture.aspx?PageId=1
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Kimmelman, Michael. "Fetishizing Native Americans: In Germany, Wild for Winnetou." Spiegel Online International, September 13, 2007. Accessed February 11, 2014.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Alvah, Donna. "American Military Families in West Germany: Social, Cultural, and Foreign Relations,1946-1965." GIs in Germany: The Social, Economic, Cultural, and Political History of the American Military Presence. Edited by Thomas W. Maulucci Jr. and Detlef Junker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  9. ^ TCC Donor Files. University of Rhode Island, November 23, 1951. Print.