History of the Cowboy Hat
There is no one item more closely linked to the American West, both its hardscrabble reality and its Hollywood myth, than the cowboy hat. Show people a collection of cowboy paraphernalia and they may or may not be able to identify any of it, but toss a battered cowboy hat on the pile and theyll immediately shout "Cowboy hat! Wyatt Earp! Bang-bang!"
But it didn't start out that way. Back in the days before and immediately after the Civil War, men (and women) who worked outdoors and migrated across the west tended to "wear what they brung". Cowboy hats as such didn't yet exist, so people who desired protection from wind, sun, rain, hail, tiny meteorites and tree branches wore what hats they had. Top hats, tams, derbies, bowlers, planter hats, military-issue kepis and billed caps, whatever. There are great period photographs taken during cattle drives in the 1880s that show ten or twelve different cowboys wearing ten or twelve different hats, and I can never quite get over the feeling that the cowboy in the bowler is the mayor, and the cowboy in the top hat is the undertaker.
Heres a quick question: where do you think the inventor of the cowboy hat was from? Texas, surely, or Oklahoma, or maybe somewhere on the great ranches of the northern plains, right? Actually, Philadelphia. It's almost disappointing, but its true. John B. Stetson was a true son of Philadelphia, but health concerns compelled him to move west in search of drier climes (and, one likes to imagine, fewer artery-clogging steak-and-cheese sandwiches).
While on a hunting trip in the west, Stetson amused his associates by showing them how he could make fur into cloth. Clearly, entertaining was easier in those days. Without the Internet, TV, radio and cheap novels as competition, a man could amuse his friends by showing off how a proper regime of kneading and submersion in boiling water could turn a loose collection of short fur hairs into a thick, tough cloth called felt. Try that sort of entertaining today and youll get a complimentary psychiatric examination.
To top off his dinner theater act, Stetson formed the freshly-minted fur cloth into a hat with what was at the time an outlandishly wide brim and poofy crown. It was supposed to be a joke, but like a lot of jokes, there was a kernel of truth in it. Stetson tried on the hat and found that it offered exactly what youd think it would offer: a great deal of protection from the elements without being too uncomfortable. He wore the hat for the rest of his hunting trip, and upon his return to what passed for civilization, decided to make more of them.
The result was the Boss of the Plains hat, which quickly became terribly popular because it was tough, waterproof, and a good size that gave good protection without turning into a serious problem in a high wind. Note that the brim wasnt curled and the crown had no creases or dents as the hats came off the production line. The brims were flat, though with a rolled edge for stiffness, and the crown was a simple dome, sort of like the top of an enormous felt-colored dinner roll. They came in one color, a tan nebulously described as "natural". They went for five dollars each, which was a lot of money back then, and competitors lost no time making all sorts of less expensive clones out of whatever materials came to hand, presumably including cardboard.
So where did the crease come from? Nobody is entirely sure, since it is surely an accident of style and use that is how lost to the mists of time, but the learned opinion is this. If you observe a population of cowboys donning and doffing their hats, you'll see that some of that population habitually grabs the hat by the brim, and some of that population grabs the crowns of the hat in a three-fingered maneuver akin to the Vulcan neck-pinch. The theory is that this pushed three permanent finger dents into the crown of the hat, one on either side and one in the top. The dented hat became one of the marks of the working cowboy, and like any style worth copying, it was worth exaggerating. Soon dime-store cowboys were mashing enormous dents and creases into their hats, though they had switch to different hats because the low crown of the Boss of the Plains hat meant that there wasnt room for your head if the dents got too big.
Hat styles proliferated, though the main stylistic difference was crown height. As creases and dents became popular, hats had to get taller so they could be scrunched back down. Hats with especially roomy crowns could be worked into so-called Montana peaks, where the crown is deeply dented on all sides and rises to a veritable Matterhorn of felt. By the 1920s crowns of ridiculous height began to appear, though mostly for the sake of movie star cowboys who needed these ten-gallon hats to stand out on the Silver Screen. (Do you think Tom Mix or Roy Rogers would have been successful if theyd worn derbies? I mean really.)
But one thing remained more or less constant in all of this: cowboys preferred hats with flat brims. They would even go to the trouble of whipping leather strips around the brims of their hats to stiffen them, though mostly to keep them from sagging down. Still, hats saw a lot of abuse, and it wasnt uncommon for the brims to take on certain permanent rolls and curls, though usually not severe ones. This was usually a matter of a cowboy handling his hat by the brim too much, but even in fairly extreme cases of use-curled brims, we today would still look at the hat and say "That's kinda flat, innit?"
So how did we get from flat brims to the modern curled-up cowboy hat? There are two schools of thought. One holds that hats saw a lot of use and naturally tended to get bent-up with use. This bent-up look make a cowboy look tough and seasoned, so men who wanted to look tough and seasoned (but perhaps weren't) started to overdo the curling and rolling until the hat-makers, responding to demand, started to ship hats pre-curled and bent. At that point, real cowboys, who could no longer get hats with flat brims, said "Goddamnit all" and had to buy hats with curled brims.
The other school of thought is that brims were not rolled or curled in a comprehensive way until the pickup truck replaced the horse as the most common means of ranch transportation. Try to imagine three cowboys with wide-brimmed hats trying to ride in the cab of a pickup truck and you grasp the utility of curled brims immediately.
Farm Goddess wrote: Okay, THAT was interesting as well as entertaining. So, my immediate question is, how do cowboys wear hats in pickup trucks even with the rolled up edges? There's that pesky back window to contend with. Wonder if this is where we get the hat style of the downward curve to the front and rear of the hats. Some of these downward curves are extreme enough that you wouldn't have to lean forward 4 inches to keep your hat from hitting the back window. When I was a kid, they used to call this style "ducked" I think. I wasn't a cowboy hat user back then but I seem to remember that term.Oh, and you didn't run across anything in your research that might tell us how to repair a rather crumpled looking felt cowboy hat did you?
Okay, THAT was interesting as well as entertaining. So, my immediate question is, how do cowboys wear hats in pickup trucks even with the rolled up edges? There's that pesky back window to contend with. Wonder if this is where we get the hat style of the downward curve to the front and rear of the hats. Some of these downward curves are extreme enough that you wouldn't have to lean forward 4 inches to keep your hat from hitting the back window. When I was a kid, they used to call this style "ducked" I think. I wasn't a cowboy hat user back then but I seem to remember that term.Oh, and you didn't run across anything in your research that might tell us how to repair a rather crumpled looking felt cowboy hat did you?