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The story of the American west is a saga spanning hundreds of years and hundreds of thousands of square miles. It ranges from sun-bleached Spanish missions on the coasts of California to silver mines in the pine-covered mountains of Colorado, to shootouts in dusty desert boomtowns in Arizona.
And if there is one symbol associated with the old west, it’s the headwear of choice of every rancher on the plains: the western hat. And if you peruse the comprehensive history of the cowboy hat, you’ll find its history is almost as interesting as the old west.
Precursors to the Western Hat
Back in the early days of the American frontier, there was no designated “western” hat. From the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, hats were simply part of the average person’s everyday ensemble. And whatever hat they happened to have on them, that’s the hat they wore west.
That meant you might see anything from top hats to coonskin caps to soldier caps on the western trails. In fact, bowler caps were actually considered the most popular hats in the west. But there were still other hats around at the time whose style would eventually inspire the famous western hat.
But the history of the North American frontier didn’t start with United States citizens making their way west. There were native populations living there long before, and after Spain came to Mexico in the 16th century, Europeans began to mix in. Out of this culture came the original cowboys—the vaqueros.
To beat the heat, vaqueros and others wore the famous sombreros. This wide-brimmed, high crown hat was ideal for keeping the sun off one’s face, hence the name sombrero, from the Spanish word for shade, sombra. People made sombreros of straw, felt, or highly decorated velvet, depending on their social status.
U.S. Calvary Hats
Trappers and settlers weren’t the only ones who pushed westward. The U.S. military was also a common sight on the frontier, taking on tasks like patrolling trails and rail lines and engaging in military conflicts. And many of these troops were cavalrymen riding on horseback.
Cavalrymen’s uniforms underwent a change starting in the early 1850s, including the hats. Before, they had a taller, almost stovepipe, shape with a visor to block out the sun. But during these years, the brim widened and circled the entire head. By the civil war, cavalry hats looked more like today’s western hats than top hats.
Enter John B. Stetson
Surprisingly, the man who created the hat that would come to be known as the “western hat” was actually born on the east coast. John B. Stetson, a New Jersey native, was well-versed in the hatter trade thanks to his father. And he might have continued making the height of eastern fashion had he not contracted tuberculosis.
When the doctors gave him a bleak diagnosis, Stetson decided to head west to see the frontier before he died. While trying to make it as a gold miner near Pikes Peak, he noticed the coonskin hats and bowlers that did little to protect settlers from the elements. And, undoubtedly, he also saw the more practical sombreros and calvary hats.
As the story goes, Stetson used his hat-making skills to create a felt wide-brimmed hat to amuse other members of the group of pioneers he was traveling with. But his acquaintances were so taken with the style he ended up selling the hat to one of them for five dollars.
Armed with this knowledge, Stetson eventually returned east. And after his health improved, Stetson opened his first cowboy hat factory in Philadelphia in 1865 to meet the needs of those back west.
The Design of Early Cowboy Hats
Stetson’s first cowboy hats were known as “the Boss of the Plains.” He made it out of different varieties of waterproof felt with a wide, stiff brim and a rounded, uncreased crown with a flat top.
The design was incredibly functional, able to be used to keep the sun and rain off, fan away flies, and even carry water. And it’s no surprise that cowboys bought them up. In fact, it’s been said that some cowboys were so attached to their hats that Western etiquette allowed them to wear their hats even at the dinner table.
Function Changing Form: Cowboy Hat Alterations
While the early cowboy hats were relatively uniform, they didn’t stay that way forever. As time went on, variations to the hat were introduced regionally, often for practical reasons. For example, some places saw cowboys creasing their brims so they would be less likely to be caught in a lasso. Others adjusted the brim to be taller or shorter.
But other changes came less from necessity and more from inevitability. Creased crowns, for example, weren’t part of the original design. But when you’re driving a herd of cattle 10 to 12 miles a day in all weather and using your hat as a water bucket, chances are it will get dented. Eventually, those creases became a style choice.
Cowboy Hats and The Silver Screen
By Stetson’s death in 1906, the frontier had already been considered closed, and the “wildness” of the wild west had died down considerably. But even though the sun was setting on the old west, it was only the beginning of the cowboy hat’s popularity thanks to the creation of a new film genre—the western.
Dime store novels about old west gunslingers had already made the cowboy a hero in the minds of the public. But western films gave people a picture to go with it: a man with a gun belt on his shoulder and a wide-brimmed, creased hat on his head.
The image was so well known that every western—regardless of if it was set before or after the Stetson was popularized—portrayed cowboys in these hats. This made sure the style of hat didn’t only stay on ranches and at rodeos, but for everyone who idealized the virtues that cowboys represented: freedom, hard work, and honesty.
The history of the cowboy hat is a history of the United States. That’s why we have a wide collection of Stetson hats for sale for you and all the cowboys in your life.