When you think of a cowboy’s attire, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If it isn’t the boots, it’s likely the iconic cowboy hat. This notable hat style can be seen throughout the West, whether on a ranch, at a rodeo, or in a classic western film. In the words of Lucius Beebe, “It was the hat that won the West.” But how did this infamous hat of the West come into being?
The history of the cowboy hat actually began over a century ago, and has evolved many times since then, being given some iconic names along the way, such as the “ten gallon hat”. It has seen many diverse styles and uses over the years as well. Let’s dive into their history a little further and see if we can figure out a little more about this signature icon of the West.
As the record goes, the man credited with creating the first modern version of the cowboy hat was John Stetson. It was back in 1865 that he manufactured the first “Boss of the Plains” hat. However, there are accounts of similar hat styles dating all the way back to the 13th century! But for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick with John Stetson’s hat. This “Boss of the Plains” hat apparently came about when Stetson, who was an eastern man himself, was traveling out West. During his travels, he soon realized that his current eastern-style hat brim was just not big enough for the Wild West. So, he crafted a new version using a beaver pelt and iron skillet and a pot for shape, and just like that the modern cowboy hat was born! Or, so the story goes.
However, the hat Stetson created is certainly not the same style as what we associate with today’s typical cowboy hat. The “Boss of the Plains” hat had a flat brim and a rounded crown, contrary to the curved brim and indented crown we are familiar with today. This hat was made from a range of materials and it came in various quality options. Materials for the hat included rabbit, beaver and other small rodents. The price ranged from as low as five dollars to six times that amount for a hat of high-quality beaver! This hat was branded and promoted as a quality necessity for the hard-working cowboy and a status symbol for city folks.
Since its original debut, the “Boss of the Plains” has undergone several changes. During the 19th century, the Vaqueros are credited with creating their own version. They brought about a new style of the cowboy hat that included a wider, curved brim and a taller crown. Additionally, the crease that is now commonly seen on the top part of the cowboy hat, was made popular by the western film actor Tom Mix between 1910 and 1930. Over the years, the cowboy hat has continued to undergo changes based on the needs of the wearer, as it spread to different regions.
This cowboy hat has commonly been referred to over the years as the “ten gallon hat”. But where did this name come from? There are many myths and legends as to its origin.
One such possibility is based on an ad put out by Stetson’s hat company, with the title “The Last Drop from his Stetson.” The ad image depicted a cowboy giving water to his horse using his trusty, multi-purpose hat, possibly contributing to the term. Another option is that the name came from the Spanish word galón, which refers to the decorative crown of a hat. This could have been due to a misinterpretation of the term galòn as the English word “gallon.” The ten gallon hat also may have come from a different Spanish phrase “tan galón” which can be interpreted as “very dashing or gallant.”
Regardless of where the term “ten gallon hat” came from, contrary to their nickname, these hats could only realistically hold maybe three quarts of water, not even one gallon!
Today, cowboy hats come in various materials and styles. With two notable materials and four main style types. The two main types of material for this type of hat are straw and felt, each serving different purposes for the wearer.
Straw hats have been around for a very long time. This material is a great option when the wearer is looking for a lightweight option that doesn't hold in much heat. For this reason, they were very popular in the Wild West days due to the hot, desert temperatures.
However, felt hats can also be a great option due to their multi-purpose use. Contrary to straw hats, this material is great for keeping the head warm in colder weather and also offers protection from moisture and sunlight. Additionally, felt hats can be used as a device to scoop up water or fan the flames of a fire in a pinch.
There are also many different styles of cowboy hats to choose from. We’ll briefly mention the four notable types. First, is “The Cattleman’s Crease,” which consists of a 3-part crease and a curved brim. “The Boss of the Plains,” as was previously discussed, has no crease and a rounded crown. Third is “The Pinch Front,” which has a popular v-shaped crease. Lastly, “The Dakota” is pinched on the crown in four different places creating a square shape.
Regardless of which material or style of hat you choose, or what name you choose to call it, you can rest assured that there is a long and exciting history involved in bringing you today’s modern cowboy hat.