The Cowboy Hat: Born of Necessity

The Cowboy Hat: Born of Necessity

Posted by Green Mountain Horse & Tack on 2nd May 2022

The cowboy hat is an iconic symbol of what it means to be an American. Like individual freedom, the cowboy hat was born in America. The cowboy hat became an instrument of the free and courageous people of America who chose to seek fortune and prosperity in the untamed west. The amazing people underneath these cowboy hats were some of the most courageous and determined people America could find. And they tamed the west from the Mississippi to the Western shores - wearing a Stetson cowboy hat the entire way.

Shortly after the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century, when the bullets and cannonballs fell silent, Americans headed West. Looking for prosperity and a better life, tens of thousands of Americans rode West into the wild, untamed country.

In the mid-nineteenth century, hats had long been worn to protect one against the elements and were a common fashion item at the time. But the hats up to this point in history were simply not up to this challenging and difficult journey heading west. Spending hours exposed to the harsh condition’s week after week and month after month was a grueling marathon. These explorers didn’t know it at the time, but they needed a hat redesign.

John B. Stetson

John B. Stetson, the son of a hatmaker, headed West as well along with some friends. During the trip, Stetson would entertain his friends by manipulating the fur they acquired in boiling water to make a kind of fur-cloth and he eventually made a blanket from this unique “fur-felt”. This treatment of fur will cause the fur fibers to bind themselves together using tiny, almost microscopic barbs that appear naturally in the deep downy fur of rabbits, beaver, muskrats, and other small animals. The resulting fur-felt has incredibly strong tensile-strength and equally astounding water-repelling characteristics. Humans have been making this fur felt for a very long time.

As a joke, Stetson made a hat with an oversized brim. He discovered while he was wearing it throughout their journey that it might just be exactly what the pioneers and cattlemen were so desperately needing. Stetson was provided with very effective protection from the weather while wearing his funky new hat. Stetson’s hat provided shade from the sun. The natural water repellent properties of natural fur, particularly beaver fur, and the terrific insulation it offered, kept him dry and warm during bad-weather days on the trail or in the woods.

He continued wearing the hat while hunting or travelling and he eventually sold it to a man for $5 - not a small amount of money in 1865. The first Stetson hat was sold. Stetson saw the opportunity. Soon afterward Stetson moved to Philadelphia and started the John B. Stetson Company. He quickly sold his entire first run of the first production Stetson cowboy hat - the “Boss of the Plains” - a hat, by the way, that you can still purchase today.

The Boss of the Plains came in different quality levels of fur-felt from the beginning. The more beaver fur in the felt,

Mexican Vaqueros

the better the hat - beaver is the most prized fur for hats due to its incredible water-repelling qualities. The prices in 1865 ranged from $5 to $30 for a 10x 100% beaver Boss of the Plains. $30 in 1865 was some serious coin. Even $5 was a very serious amount of cash - about $87 in today’s purchasing power.

The fur-felt cowboy hat was the perfect tool for the workers in the cattle industry and western travelers. It didn’t take long afterward that the cowboy hat became a symbol of the American West. In time, the cowboy hat immediately communicated something about the hat’s wearer. It spoke of independence and courage, an adventurous spirit and, maybe, a bit untamed.

Soon men were hiding things in their hats like money or important papers (hence the expression “keep it under your hat” - yeah, that was a cowboy hat). The cowboy hat was convenient and effective when fanning flames of a smoldering fire, to encourage your horse for just a little more or to wave to a distant friend. And of course, when it rained, your cowboy hat became your savior.

Cowboys working cattle

Cowboys soon developed a series of specific adjustments to the crown and brim that became localized; you could look at a man’s hat and see that he’s from the low deserts of New Mexico, the rugged plains of Texas, the snow-covered peaks of Montana or the Northern parts of Nevada. Groups of ranch hands likewise were known to develop a “family crease” in their hats so they could tell which ranch another cowboy was from. As the old cowboy saying goes, “The cowboy hat is the last thing you take off and the first thing you look at”. It was a very important tool for these guys.

Even into the early 1900’s the cowboy hat painted the wearer with a connection to the “old west” world of outlaws, cattle drives and rugged individualism. Of course, after movies came about and westerns became one of the most popular genres, the cowboy hat saw a respectable resurgence in popularity as western stars like Bill Hart, Tom Mix and Ken Maynard were watched by silver screen fans.

The cowboy hat has changed very little since the early days of the John B. Stetson Company. And it is still today the most practical hat you can buy. It protects you from the harsh sun better than any other hat. It protects you from cold wind, rain, sleet or snow better than any other hat. In a strange kind of way, it holds the memories of everywhere you’ve taken it and everything you’ve seen.

Cowboy on horse

Today there are dozens of quality hat makers, hundreds of styles, and more materials to find the perfect cowboy hat for your needs at the price you can afford. As you wear your everyday cowboy hat (not your dress hat) it will collect its unique battle scars and stains, each identifying a particular moment in time. As your cowboy hat lives alongside you through the course of time, it becomes uniquely a part of you, like a great pair of boots or that favorite pair of jeans.

Fur felt cowboy hats are still a staple for modern cowboys in the cooler months. A quality fur felt hat will take a lickin’ from the most severe weather and once you dry it out it will be there for you, ready to go at it again. For the heat of the summer, straw and palm cowboy hats offer a cooler solution with more ventilation. The general rule is that Labor Day is the start of the fur-felt cowboy hat wearing season and Memorial Day begins the straw hat season. But no one pays much attention to this so wear what’s right for you. That’s what any good cowboy would do.