Cowboys and Indians | A Child's Game

Every young boy (and even grown men) long to enter a time warp, and enter the dangerous Wild West! As kids, we would all play "Cowboys and Indians" with our homemade "bows and arrows" and cheap plastic guns. These symbols of yesteryear typify our perception of that classic western culture. Though "bows and arrows," cheap plastic guns, and costumes have their place on Halloween, the cowboy hat still symbolizes a part of American history we still remember and recognize today.  

Hats: A Sign of Culture

If you lived in Texas today, seeing a cowboy hat wouldn't faze you. However, if you lived in New York City or the Florida coast, seeing a cowboy hat would make you turn and look. The way we dress tells a lot about us! During western expansion, the cowboy hat identified you as a cattleman. Not only this, but a man's region could be determined by the particular style of his cowboy hat. Cowboy hats had become a sign of western culture.

Woman with Hat

Shape and Style of the Cowboy Hat

Cowboy hats are marked primarily by a tall headpiece, wide brim and high creased crown. This design became standard and as factories began production, this style was predominant and most popular.

Fold Lore and John B. Stetson

Several stories surround the invention of the cowboy hat, but the most popular and widely known is that of Mr. Stetson (Founder of Stetson Cowboy Hats). Stetson was the son of a master hat maker from Philadelphia. Because of health issues, Stetson moved west. One night, he told his companions that he could make a cloth out of fur. By using a technique of kneading the fur, boiling, working it into a shape, and repeating these steps, he made what is now known as the cowboy hat. It proved to keep sun out of his eyes and rain off his back. He later sold it for a $5 silver coin in Central City, Colorado. Another theory simply says that he made it while panning for gold. Stetson's hat was dubbed the "Boss of the Plains."

American's were not the first cattle herders in the West. The Mexican's had a heavy influence, and so it is no surprise that the Sombrero could have had an influence on the cowboy hat. Whatever the origins were, Mr. Stetson had the heaviest influence on the cowboy hat.

In 1865 John Stetson, with only $100, opened his first hat store. With only $10 worth of fur he put the skills he learned from his master hatter dad and started producing the name brand we know so well today. Most hatters of the time were known for being lazy, but Stetson changed that stereotype and his brand became known for its quality and endurance. The Stetson factory is now in Garland, Texas.

A Law Suit

There is evidence that Stetson's design was not entirely original. Christys' Hats, a company out of England that supplied cowboy style hats for slaves, sued Stetson for his design being too similar. Christys did have well documentation for their design.  Stetson eventually had to pay licensing fees, but his product out shined Christys' product.

The Snake Hunter
Credit: by Fran Hogan

Practical Use | An Every Day Product

In the rugged West, creative ways of cowboy hat use included: fanning a fire, whipping a horse into action, calling attention to those far away, drawing water from a river, keeping the sun of faces, and prevent water from dripping down back.

Modern Military | Canada, U.S. Army, and State Troopers

We generally thing of the cowboy had as a western icon, but several organizations use it today. One of the first was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the Second Boer War the Canadian Contingent were issued a standard cowboy hat. It became so common, that even the England recognized it has a symbols for the Canadians. The U.S. Army was also issued standard hats from 1911 to 1940. Though not used widely now in the Army, drill instructors still used them. You've probably seen this shown in Army Movies. It's also common to see forest rangers and state trooper dawn these historical symbols.

The history of the cowboy hat is rich. It doesn't just speak of a hat, but speaks of the history of the wild and rugged west. The cowboy hat opens the door to history that is sometimes only seen through the eyes of a movie. Whenever you see someone where a cowboy hat, remember where it came from and what it represents!