The Stetson hat, named after its inventor, John B. Stetson, is synonymous with the more generic cowboy hat. A symbol of Western pride and bravado, this modified sombrero, with its large crown and wide brim, has graced the heads of America's most treasured Western heroes, from old-time favorites like actor John Wayne, Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger, and country singer Gene Autry, to modern-day popular artists like Garth Brooks and Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing on the television series Dallas. (J.R.'s hat is now displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's contemporary Americana exhibit.) The Stetson hat is not just a male fashion statement, either. Prominent country singers from Dale Evans to Trisha Yearwood, spurred on by legendary female maverick Annie Oakley, have proven that females can carry off this most essential Western look, too.
The Stetson Hat Company was established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1865 when John B. Stetson decided to mass-produce the modified sombrero he had fashioned for himself out of necessity during a lengthy Western expedition. Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" model, with its high, creased crown and wide, molded brim, became the prototype for all other cowboy hat designs. Now located in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Stetson hat factory there and its second factory in Galveston, Texas, continue to turn out the "Boss of the Plains," along with over 100 variations for men and women.
John B. Stetson was born in 1830 in Orange, New Jersey, the 12th of 13 children born to Stephen Stetson, a hatmaker. As a youth, the younger Stetson worked in the hatmaking business with his father until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and his doctor predicted he would have only a short time to live. Given this dire prognosis, Stetson left the hatmaking business to explore the American West, afraid this would be his only chance to see it. He eventually settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, a trading post where expeditions to Pike's Peak and similar western destinations were outfitted.
In the 1860s, unable to enlist to serve in the Civil War due to his poor health, Stetson set off on a Pike's Peak expedition himself and found himself becoming healthier throughout the course of the journey. When his party was unable to find suitable shelter, Stetson and the others fashioned makeshift cover by sewing together the skins of the muskrat, rabbit, beaver, and coyote they had shot for food. Given their rustic environs, the men had no means of tanning the hides, however.
Then, Stetson suggested that he make cloth for tents using the felting process he had learned in his father's hatmaking business. He shaved the fur from some of the skins and fashioned a hunter's bow from a section of a hickory sapling and a throng from one of the skins. Stetson agitated the fur with the bow, keeping it in a small cloud in the air and eventually allowing it to fall to the ground and naturally distribute itself over a small area. As the fur fell to the ground, Stetson blew a fine spray of water from his mouth through the fur, creating a mat that could be lifted from the ground and rolled. Stetson then dipped the sheet of matted fur into a pot of boiling water. As the sheet began to shrink, he manipulated it with his hands, rapidly and repeatedly dipping it in hot water and eventually forming a small, soft blanket. By repeating this process, Stetson and the other members of his party created enough of this water-repellent material to construct a tent. This same method is employed in felt-making today, although the fur is raised to the air by a fan and the water is sprayed mechanically.
To shield himself from the daytime sun, wind, and rain, Stetson also fashioned a hat from the felt. The high, indented crown and wide brim were modeled after the Mexican sombrero. According to legend, the other members of Stetson's party ridiculed him for wearing the hat until a passing bullwhacker from Mexico one day offered Stetson a five dollar gold piece for his invention.
After mining gold at Pike's Peak for a year, Stetson traveled to Philadelphia in 1865 and set up a small hatmaking business with $100 for the purchase of tools and fur. After designing several unsuccessful models, Stetson again created his modified sombrero with a 4 in (10 cm) crown and a 4 in (10 cm) brim and, when he was unable to sell Easterners on the innovation, began to market his product, grandly dubbed the "Boss of the Plains," in the Southwest, where it took off almost immediately. By the time Stetson died in 1906, his business was a booming success, and the company that bears his name still turns out a wide variety of Western hats at its St. Joseph and Galveston factories. Today, the Western hat is nearly as popular in the eastern United States, not to mention internationally, as it is in the American West.
The primary component of the Stetson hat is felt, which is fashioned from a variety of fur, preferably beaver, rabbit, and wild hare. Hot water is also integral to the felting process. Dyes are used to achieve a variety of felt colors (the original color of the felt depends on the color of the original fur). Powder is used to soften the felt. Leather is another component of the process, used to form the interior sweatband of the hat. Attaching the sweatband may require glue. Two-ply or two-cord band is used to create the ribbon that encircles the outside of the crown where it meets the brim, and thread is used to stitch the ribbon. Small metal eyelets are also typically used for venting.
For the style-conscious, three of the most important considerations in purchasing a Stetson hat are the slope of the crown, the roll of the brim, and the number and arrangement of the creases, or pinches, in the crown, which are viewed as giving each Stetson its distinctive character. The pinch can be prefabricated or chosen by the consumer and blocked by the hatter. Cowboy hats may also be adorned with feathers, embroidery, silver accessories, and the like. The appeal of the Stetson hat for many is that, when fitted in cowboy boots and a Stetson, the wearer appears at least 6 in (15 cm) taller.
Stetson hats are subject to many stages of inspection to check that the finish, shape, body, and feel are appropriate and to identify any flaws. One major factor in determining the price of a Stetson hat is the quality of the felt, demarcated by the number of "x"s that appear on the sweatband. Factors contributing to the quality of the felt include the fur and skin types, the living environment of the animal from which the fur was culled (wild, domestic, or season), the age of the fur, and its color.
Western hats are considered as stylish today as they were when they were invented. The Stetson Hat Company and many others are continually developing new variations on the style of this product and exploring different materials such as straw and leather.
Reynolds, William and Ritch Rand. The Cowboy Hat Book. Gibbs Smith, 1995.
Biltmore Hats. "The Story of the Cowboy Hat." http://www.in.on.ca/~biltmore/story.html (July 9, 1997).
— Kristin Palm