Thursday, August 16th, 2012

In 1859, a sickly Easterner went out West and created an icon:

On a hunting expedition in Colorado in the 1860s, Stetson decided his small-brimmed city hat provided paltry protection against the harsh winds and oppressive sun. So he took a hatchet and pocketknife, made a felt out of some beaver and rabbit fur, and fashioned it into a high-crowned, wide-brimmed chapeau. Not only did it protect Stetson from the elements — it was also pretty darn stylish.

The hat, eventually dubbed “The Boss of the Plains,” would make Stetson a multimillionaire and become an American icon. [...] Stetson’s original Boss of the Plains bears little resemblance to the hat worn by Gary Cooper in “High Noon” — or by Matthew McConaughey in “Magic Mike,” for that matter.

Human beings have worn hats since antiquity, both for protection and for decoration. The ancient Greeks even created the first brimmed hat, called the petasos, but it wasn’t until the 1200s that a broad-brimmed, high-crowned hat would show up in Europe, courtesy of the Mongols. Indeed, the Spaniards were so taken with the invading Mongolians’ headgear that they adopted it. They then, in turn, brought their flat-crowned, flat-brimmed toppers to the American territories — most notably Mexico — where the hats morphed into the exaggerated sombrero. The sombrero protected outdoorsmen from the sun and rain, and proved popular among the vaqueros who worked for the region’s booming cattle industry. The cowboy hat, thus, came to the present-day U.S. through California, where it grew immense (to go with the locals’ flashy silver-buckled belts and tight trousers), and Texas, where — believe it or not — it was more subdued.

By the time Stetson set foot in the West, cowboys were already wearing something that resembled the modern-day cowboy hat. And while the weather certainly nudged Stetson to chuck his ineffectual, urbane bowler, no doubt the cool swagger of his fellow cowboys in their sombreros also had something to do with it.

But Stetson’s creation improved upon its predecessors. Its brim shielded its wearer from the sun and wind without collecting excess rainwater. A cowboy could use his Boss of the Plains to fan a fire, hide his money (in the sweatband) and sleep on (it proved a fairly comfortable pillow). According to lore, Stetson’s hat proved such a smash that he began making them ad hoc on the trail to sell to admiring cowboys for $5 each (about $100 in today’s money). When he finally returned to Philadelphia, in 1865, Stetson began manufacturing the Boss of the Plains on a large scale. The mass-produced hats sold for between $10 and $30 a pop. Despite this exorbitant price, Stetson’s factory was producing more than 4 million cowboy hats a year by the time of his death in 1906.

The cowboy hat had already, however, undergone another transformation: It got character. Sure, the earliest Boss of the Plains design was functional and attractive, but it was, like Stetson himself, rather refined. Its crown was smooth and lacked any dents, and its brim was flat instead of bent upward. Because the hats were so expensive, cowboys would buy one and wear it for decades, so that it came to bear the authenticating marks of wind, weather and hard use. When Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley performed in their Wild West shows, their fans didn’t want the pristine chapeaus sold by Stetson and other manufacturers — they wanted hats like the ones their heroes wore. Stetson responded by selling pre-creased cowboy hats. Their popularity soared.

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