“As Peter Nicholls observed of Le Guin’s London speech, the silent figure in the elegant black velvet suit and the propellor beanie, rather nervously reading the prepared speech, quickly turned into a companion speaking directly to each of the six-hundred people in the ballroom of the Southern Cross Hotel. That directness survives onto the printed page. “The walls are down, we’re free at last,” she tells us. “Now that we’re free, where are we going?””
-from The Language of the Night, collected non-fiction of Ursula Le Guin
“There I was, telling this guy that science fiction was a very serious branch of literature and deserved serious consideration, when I suddenly remembered I was wearing a beanie on my head with a little propeller on it. And the propeller was turning. Very slowly turning.”
-Susan Wood, from In Memory of Susan Wood
I’ve had those two quotes sitting in the back of my head for a little while now – like, a maybe half a year by now – and the conundrum on my mind has been:
Why the hell are propeller beanies cropping up among certain big names of science fiction and no one seems to think it worth a comment?! Am I missing out on a joke? Were the beanies handed out as party favors at award ceremonies or something? Why does no one remark on the beanies?!?! What is going on?!
Well today I finally dug a little deeper and it turns out there’s actually a goddamn history of the thing as associated with sci-fi authors and fans. Observe:
In a published interview, Nelson described how “In the summer of 1947, I was holding a regional science fiction convention in my front room and it culminated with myself and some Michigan fans dressing up in some improvised costumes to take joke photographs, simulating the covers of science fiction magazines. The headgear which I designed for the space hero was the first propeller beanie. It was made out of pieces of plastic, bit of coat-hanger wire, some beads, a propeller from a model airplane, and staples to hold it together.” Shortly thereafter, it was worn by George Young of Detroit at a world convention, where it was an enormous hit.
Oh, and also this:
It quickly became an icon for science fiction fans to identify themselves, and a national fad.
This explains… so so much… and yet I have so many more questions. So many. But at least I finally get the missing context. I think.
I mean, here I was just thinking that Ursula Le Guin and Susan Wood happened to have strangely identical senses of humor when it came to their headgear, and no one else bothered to blink an eye…
Well, that’s that. There isn’t much more to this letter, except that I just learned something new today, and it amuses me greatly, and I can’t believe I never came upon this not-so-secret piece of science fiction history until this very moment.
In conclusion, here is a photo Ursula Le Guin wearing what appears to by a hybrid between a crown and a jester’s cap:
(Photo by Denise Rehse Watson)