Ever wondered how the Navy white hat, also known as a dixie cup, came to be? Author Marke Hensgen told all in the November 1988 edition of All Hands magazine. The title of the article: “To Cap It All Off… A Fond Look at a Navy Trademark: Uses (and Abuses) of the ‘Dixie Cup.’ ” Check out Wednesday’s “Tidbit” for the first part of the article; today’s portion is the second and final.
“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.’ ”