Harry Barrett – The Inventor of Boomerang Hat Juggling

The art of juggling with boomerang hats, also known as flying hats, has been popular for over a hundred years. One of the best boomerang hat jugglers is Argentinian superstar Paul Ponce. You can see his work with them below.

The art of juggling straw hats by throwing them out over the audience was invented by American juggler Harry “Pop” Barrett in 1899. Harry, who was born in 1853, was a club juggler who happened upon the phenomenon of the boomerang hat by accident. Jack Greene, one of Harry’s many partners, wrote the following about how Barrett made this discovery in a Juggler’s Bulletin column in 1946.

“While playing an amusement park date at Syracuse, N.Y., Pop bought a cheap straw hat such as farmers used in that period. While back stage he idly tossed the hat in the air. He noticed a tendency of the hat to return to him boomerang fashion. In the course of his act that day without any practice Pop tried out the stunt on his audience. They were amused and encouraged him. The stunt became a principal part of Pop’s act from that time on. After many months of trial and error he developed numerous tricks new to the juggling field. A good many of the tricks must be given credit where credit was due. Pop had a habit of changing partners quite often, these partners were instrumental in developing new tricks for Harry’s act. I believe.”

From that point on, Harry Barrett and his original partners, who were his son and brother, started to develop the boomerang hats into a solid act. A newspaper clipping from 1902, just three years after his discovery, shows that the act development was going well.

As Jack Greene pointed out, Harry worked with many partners, who in turn developed their own acts with boomerang hats. Like ball bouncing and hoop rolling, two juggling inventions of the same era, copycat acts quickly popped up.  The following 1921 letter to the editor by Harry Barrett tells us much about the background of the act and about those who copied it.

As you can see, Harry believed that only Moran and Wiser could legitimately perform his invention of boomerang hat juggling. It seems that the controversy of jugglers copying other juggler’s ideas is not new at all. Jack Greene apparently felt differently than Barrett, as he wrote the following about the boomerang hat controversy in that same Juggler’s Bulletin column from 1946.

“But each trick – and each bit of comedy has been suggested by someone or something that has been done before by someone else. In other words, one idea suggests another, and presto- A new baby is born- perhaps twins. I think it little behooves any of us to say, “That fellow stole my stuff. I originated that trick or piece of business. Wait till I see him”. And it may be that you did originate that trick. So what? Are you not using some trick originated by someone else also? So, steady boys, think back— where did you get your original idea?”

A newspaper from the 1930s tells about his career, dealing with his son’s medical issues, and the generosity of other jugglers.

Harry “Pop” Barrett

Besides being the inventor of boomerang hat juggling, he also sold the hats to other jugglers, which is a bit contradictory if he felt that no one else should be performing the act. Nevertheless, the newspaper advertisement below shows that he did so.

While Harry Barrett never became a big star on the vaudeville stage, it appears that he was an incredible father to his son and a friend to fellow jugglers. His invention of boomerang hat juggling lives on today, and, for that, we are grateful.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 16 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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