When the Green Bay Packers take the field for their NFL playoff game this weekend, there will be millions around the world parked in front of their television sets donning bright yellow, triangular, foam hats that look suspiciously like a dairy product. It's an odd tradition, no doubt, but something that Wisconsinites and so-called "cheeseheads" wear with pride (even if President-elect Trump refused to wear one). After all, the state is the number one cheese producer in the United States, producing 26% of America's cheese. If Wisconsin were a country, it would be fourth largest cheese producer in the world. While this headgear-wearing custom often elicits smiles, "cheesehead" was originally a pretty major insult.
As with many American things, the term "cheesehead" has European roots. The Dutch word "kaaskop" literally translates to "head cheese," but it was often used - and may still be - to call someone stupid or dense. According to the Racial Slur Database (I didn't even know that existed), the Nazis called the Dutch this while invading their country in World War II perhaps as an allusion to the Netherlands' cheesy reputation. While no other sources verify this, there are other places where the word "cheesehead" (or the language's variation of it) pops up that contextually confirms it was used as an insult. In the 1969 autobiography of the Frenchman Henri Charrière, titled Papillon because of his butterfly tattoo, he says that the jurors who found him guilty of murder are so-called "cheeseheads," insinuating they were dumb. While this may not be related to its insult origins, the British also use the term "cheesehead," but in reference to a type of screw head with "vertical sides and a slightly domed top."
Fast forward from WWII and the term was taken on by Illinoisans to refer to their northern neighbors. It's unclear what prompted them to start calling Wisconsinites "cheeseheads." Whatever the case, they originally used it as an insult in much the same way the Germans and Charrière did. In particular, Chicagoans often used the term to describe those they deemed to be "backward hicks" from Wisconsin. However, as the Wisconsin Magazine of History observed, residents of this northern state have a history of turning a derogatory term into a one positive one. For example, Wisconsin miners would often emerge from their underground work with streaks of black soot and were often called "badgers" in a demeaning manner. However, they embraced this and, today, the state animal is a badger (as well as the state university's mascot).
The cheesehead hat origin story begins like those of many great inventions - in mom's basement. The legend goes that in 1987 Ralph Bruno was reupholstering his mom's couch when he got an idea. As he told ESPN in 2011, he had recently been reading Chicago newspapers and they had kept referring to his hometown Brewers (Milwaukee's baseball team) and their fans as "cheeseheads." He was getting tired of it, so he decided to throw it back in their faces...by making a hat. Taking leftover polyurethane foam, he scooped out holes which made it more look like Swiss cheese than traditional Wisconsin cheddar. To counter this, he painted it a bright yellow. To this day, Bruno claims that he envisioned a compilation of three kinds of cheese - the wedge being like gouda, the color being cheddar and the holes Swiss. The next day, he plopped it on and headed to the Brewers-White Sox game. At first, the hat embarrassed his friends, but a cute girl asked to try it on, and they immediately claimed to think it was the greatest hat ever invented. Soon, Bruno and his yellow cheese hat became ubiquitous at sports events across the state - most prominently, at Packer games - such that everyone wanted one of their own. So, Bruno quit his day job as a patternmaker to make the hats full-time in his own factory.
Today, Bruno's Foamation factory is based in Milwaukee. Despite being family-owned, small and only employing a handful of full-timers, they make every single hat nearly all by hand. Along with the original wedges of cheese, the company also makes cowboy hats, championship belts and a corn football. In 2012, the hat was recognized for its positive contribution to the state with one delegate saying, "(The cheesehead is) probably more iconic to the state of Wisconsin than beer and brats."
The compliment is quite a long ways away from its insulting wartime origin.