When France decided on a mascot for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic Games, it didn’t go with a cartoonish animal, as many other host nations have in years past. Instead, the country chose to honor, of all things, a hat.

The Olympic Phryge (pronounced “fri-jee-uh”), as the mascot is called, is likely to be familiar to any French schoolchild. It’s based on a floppy red cap that became, and remains to this day, an indelible emblem of the late-18th-century French Revolution. (France also debuted the Paralympic Phryge, which has a prosthetic right leg.)

“We chose an ideal rather than an animal,” said Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet at a press conference. “For French people, it’s a very well-known object that is a symbol of freedom.”

Almost lost to history, however, is the fact that the phryge was once a symbol of the American Revolution, too. If not for the hat’s importance to the colonial Patriots, it’s possible their French counterparts would never have adopted the phryge as their own.

A hat with a history

The phryge itself dates back much further than either of these revolutions. Many historians trace it to the pileus, a cap worn by the formerly enslaved in ancient Rome to indicate that they had been freed.

The name phryge comes from Phrygia, an ancient region in what is now Turkey, where similar hats were worn sometime before the seventh century B.C.E. The Phrygian cap was characterized by a distinctive cone on top that could flop over toward the front or back.

While the cap appears on many ancient coins, usually on the head of a god or a goddess, it gradually disappeared from symbolic use as the centuries rolled on. It re-emerged in the 17th century as scholars in England became more interested in the classical world, and it appeared in the future United States as early as 1733, on the official seal of the Georgia Trustees, who governed that colony under a charter from George II.

An ancient statue of a woman wearing a Phrygian cap
An ancient statue of a woman wearing a Phrygian cap TimeTravelRome via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0
A statue of Paris, a prince of Troy, wearing a Phrygian cap
A statue of Paris, a prince of Troy, wearing a Phrygian cap Rabax63 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Phrygian caps gained wider currency in the 1760s as American colonists chafed under British rule. Paul Revere, the Boston silversmith best known today for his midnight ride in 1775, warning of an impending British attack, was largely responsible for this trend.

In 1766, Revere designed an obelisk to be erected on Boston Common in celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act, a reviled British law that imposed a tax on the paper used in legal documents, newspapers and even playing cards in the Colonies. On one side of the obelisk, a woman representing liberty carries a Phrygian cap atop a pole. American revolutionaries embraced the hat as a symbol, now calling it a liberty cap.

The liberty cap became one of the most ubiquitous images in the colonists’ fight for freedom, frequently pictured either on the head of the goddess Liberty or atop a spiked staff she carried.

Paul Revere obelisk featuring a Phrygian hat
Liberty, holding a pole topped with a Phrygian hat, appears at the bottom of the rightmost side of the obelisk. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

After the British surrendered in 1781 and the new nation came into being, the liberty cap lived on for decades, featured on many U.S. coins, state flags and seals. In at least one early rendering, Uncle Sam wears a liberty cap rather than the red, white and blue top hat seen today.

A red liberty cap can still be found on the official flag of the U.S. Army, as well as the seal of the U.S. Senate. The figure of Lady Liberty, often wearing a liberty cap, continued to grace U.S. coins for some 150 years, among them the Mercury dime, which was discontinued in 1945 and replaced by the Roosevelt dime but occasionally shows up in pocket change today.

“When considering options for our first coins, Congress debated over whether to feature George Washington and later presidents,” the U.S. Mint notes on its website. “Many believed that putting the current president on a coin was too similar to Great Britain’s practice of featuring their monarchs. Instead, Congress chose to personify the concept of liberty rather than a real person.”

An 1837 print of Uncle Sam wearing a Phrygian cap
An 1837 print of Uncle Sam wearing a Phrygian cap Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A controversial cap

But it wasn’t long before liberty caps became the subject of controversy, in part because they were so closely identified with the French Revolution, which had shocked many Americans with its bloodshed. The caps’ “ties to the radical phases of the French Revolution limited their use as symbols for American politicians after the mid-1790s,” says Andrew Detch, a historian at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They became symbolic of both radicalism and political faction, two things that most political leaders in the United States feared.”

In the 19th century, some American politicians found a new reason to object to the liberty cap as a national symbol. When the U.S. Capitol was being designed in the 1850s, the original plan for a statue atop the dome called for a classically garbed woman wearing a liberty cap. But Jefferson Davis, then-secretary of war and soon-to-be president of the Confederacy, strenuously objected, apparently fearing that a symbol that could be traced back to formerly enslaved Romans would send the wrong message, especially to enslaved Black Americans. As a result, the Statute of Freedom wears a helmet instead. Still, the liberty cap remains well represented within the Capitol in murals and other artworks.

In France, meanwhile, the liberty cap—often referred to as the bonnet rouge, or red cap, after its typical color, or bonnet de laine, after its common material of wool—began to appear in paintings and engravings around 1789, at the outset of the French Revolution. Unlike their American counterparts, who used the liberty cap largely as a symbol, many French revolutionaries actually wore the hats.

An early design for the statue at the top of the U.S. Capitol's dome featured a liberty cap
An early design for the statue at the top of the U.S. Capitol's dome featured a liberty cap Library of Congress
A satirical drawing of Louis XVI wearing a Phrygian cap and drinking wine
A satirical drawing of Louis XVI wearing a Phrygian cap and drinking wine Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Historian Charles Downer Hazen described one momentous day, June 20, 1792, when “several thousand men, wearing the bonnet rouge, armed with pikes and carrying standards with the Rights of Man printed on them,” stormed Louis XVI’s palace in Paris to demand that the French king sign two decrees that he’d previously vetoed. Louis refused, but possibly to placate the invaders, he put a bonnet rouge on his head and drank a glass of wine they provided him. “The crowd finally withdrew, having committed no violence, but having subjected the king of France to bitter humiliation,” Hazen wrote.

Satirical engravings of Louis with a wine bottle in his hand and a red cap on his head soon started circulating in France. The revolutionaries still weren’t satisfied, however, and they removed his head altogether by sending him to the guillotine in January 1793. Louis’ wife, Marie Antoinette, followed him to the grave that October.

When Charles Dickens published his fictional account of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, in 1859, he outfitted characters in “coarse” or “rough” red caps throughout the book. The novel’s illustrator also featured the caps in several accompanying drawings.

An illustration of revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities​​​​​​​
An illustration of revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities Public domain via Project Gutenberg

The cap similarly appears in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about the Paris Uprising of 1832, Les Misérables, in which rebels once more donned and displayed the bonnet rouge in their attempt to oust a newly formed French monarchy. “In Burgundy and in the cities of the South,” Hugo wrote, “the tree of Liberty was planted. That is to say, a pole surmounted by a red cap.”

From those days to these, the liberty (or Phrygian) cap has been as celebrated in France as it has been ignored in the U.S. When a female French admirer wished to honor Benjamin Franklin, then the ambassador to France, in 1783, she gave him a cane or walking stick capped with a small gold replica of a liberty cap. Franklin so valued the present and all it symbolized that he willed it to his friend George Washington upon his death in 1790. The artifact now resides in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The History of America in Ben Franklin's Walking Stick

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