Andrea here, musing today about hats. Not just any hats, but one particular style that has transcended passing fads or whims to become a cultural icon in and of itself. I happened to stumble across a vintage photo of a group of cowboys from the 1880s the other day while researching a completely different topic, and and it made me pause to study the faces—and the hats!
The cowboy hat is recognized as the quintessentially American hat. (Though the baseball hat also ranks right up there, too!) It conjures up romantic mages of the Wild West (though the reality wasn't at all idyllic) with its wide open prairies, rugged individualism of the cowboys and spirit of adventure . . . and exudes a sense of independence and self-reliance. (No matter that it’s now often worn by celebrities, politicians, soccer moms and hipster-cool Wall Streeters who’ve never ever twirled a lariat or been on the back of a horse.)
So, I became curious about how the cowboy hat came into being. (As many of you now, I’m a research and history nerd who love learning little bits of arcane information.) So hold on to your hats as we take a quick gallop through the origins of America’s favorite hat!
There actually is an ah-ha moment! John Stetson joined his father’s hat-making business as a young man, but was diagnosed with tuberculosis and chose to quit his job in order to explore the American West as he wasn’t expected to live very long. He loved the ambiance of the fresh air and mountains . . . but he thought that the assortment of ratty-looking headgear—flea-bitten coonskin caps, battered British top hats and derbies—left something to be desired. So on his return to the east, he started own hat company in Philadelphia—John B. Stetson Hatters—and in 1865, created a model he called “Boss of the Plains,” designed specifically for the rigors of outdoor life in the American West.(Legend has it that he thought of the design while climbing Pike’s peak. It should also be noted that he was likely inspired by the wide-brimmed hats that were popular with cowpuchers from Mexico.)
It was a simple, utilitarian hat, with a flat, wide brim and rounded four-inch crown. A plain leather band circle the base of the crown, which helped keep the hat snug around the wearer’s head. It was soon winning kudos for its usefulness—the wide brim gave protection from the sun and also could serve as a fan in hot weather—or to fan a fire to life at night. In addition, the crown could be used as a water bucket for one’s horse. (As other models began to feature a larger crown, they came to be called ten-gallon hats . . .though that is quite an exaggeration of their capacity!)
As I began to look at various vintage photos of people wearing early cowboy hats, what struck me was how every one of them looked different and reflected the individuality of its owner. (Aren’t these old images fun! All are courtesy of Wiki Commons.) It turns out the real beauty of a Stetson hat was its chameleon-like versatility. It was made of study felt which is incredibly durable, but also easy to tweak and shape. Some cowboys began rolling the brim up so as not to get in the way of throwing a lasso. Others added their own style by by putting a crease in the crown. (There are straw models too, which also can be molded to suit the wearer.)
I n fact, the art creasing the crown came to be a big deal. I’ve learned there are certain standard styles: the single crease, which goes down the center, the V-crease, where two side creases meet in the front, and the square crease, where the center of the crown is indented at all four corners. And then, of course, the individual can take it from there and create a unique look.
Stetson (which is still an iconic maker of cowboy hats today) was quickly imitated, and host of other “cowboy” brands came to market. But the essential look stayed the same, and has come down to us this day in much the same form. Another popular way to individualize a hat is to put a special band around the crown that reflects one’s style or interests. But however one chooses to decorate one’s hat, its essence remains unchanged.
Now, things may have changed, but when I was growing up, I don’t think there was any American kid who didn’t at some point in their childhood get a cowboy hat.
What about you? Are you a cowboy hat aficionado? Did you have one as a kid? Do you have one now—and do you wear it around town? Do you think they are cool? Please share!