#Stetson Invented the Cowboy Hat, Westerners Gave It Wings
There’s an element of truth to the maxim “the hat makes the man.” In the 19th century West, for example, certain headgear served to identify their wearers at a glance. Soldiers had the shako, firefighters the leatherhead, Indians the warbonnet and vaqueros the sombrero. But perhaps no other topper in history has symbolized a people and their region in such a defining way as the cowboy hat. See it stamped on a box, in neon outside a storefront or in a popular present-day email “emoji,” and one immediately thinks of the American West.
Yet, the cowboy hat wasn’t the most prolific lid of its time or place. In a 1957 editorial headlined The Hat That Won the West, in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, writer-historian Lucius Beebe disputed that the cowboy hat was ubiquitous out West, a notion he deemed an invention of artist Frederic Remington. “The authentic hat of the Old West,” Beebe wrote, “was the cast-iron derby, the bowler of Old Bond Street and the chapeau melon of French usage.” He then pointed to such derby wearers as lawman Bat Masterson, stagecoach robber Charles E. “Black Bart” Boles, Wells Fargo chief detective James B. Hume and, tellingly, “Remington and his imitators” as proof of his assertion.
Regardless, the cowboy hat remains the iconic symbol of the West. And the name that has become synonymous with it is Stetson. Ironically, John B. Stetson was an Easterner, and the factory that initially steamed, shaped and shipped tens of millions of hats bearing his name was in Philadelphia, though the company that produces them under license today is, fittingly, in Texas.
Stetson (1830–1906), the son of a New Jersey hatmaker, was diagnosed with tuberculosis as a young man and resolved to close up the family shop and venture West for the climate and to see its vaunted beauty before dying. In 1861 news of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush drew him and fellow hopefuls to the Colorado goldfields. Stetson arrived, so the story goes, amid heavy downpours and so crafted a beaver felt hat of his own design to keep dry. It featured the trademark wide brim, high crown and waterproof lining since associated with his name. The style proved so popular among the Western outdoorsmen Stetson encountered that the emboldened entrepreneur returned East in 1865 to resume hatmaking.
The first design off the line in his Philadelphia factory was the “Boss of the Plains” (see above). It proved instantly popular and dominated the market for the next couple of decades. As Stetson owners took to adding personalized touches—a dent here or a curved brim there—the company took note and rolled out additional styles.
Stetson got a big boost in the 1880s with the advent of international celebrity in the person of William Frederick Cody. Cody was already a fan of Stetsons, custom versions of which he wore onstage in the early 1870s in touring productions organized by dime novelist Ned Buntline. Within a few years of launching his own Wild West arena shows in 1883, Buffalo Bill was plastering his Stetson-capped image on signboards from San Francisco to Saxony. The hatmaker couldn’t buy better advertising.
The birth of the silver screen and its Western stars further amplified the popularity of the Stetson, one of which the company named for the actor who made it popular—the Tom Mix.
Today the cowboy hat endures, and scores of hatmakers big and small continue to craft styles that symbolize the Old and New West. We trace its history below.