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.
John B. Stetson
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.
Every owner of a classic Stetson will immediately recognize ‘The Last Drop From His Stetson,’ by Lon Megargee. Born in Pennsylvania in 1883, Megargee lost his father at age 13 and was raised by an uncle on an Arizona ranch. By the early 20th century he’d become an established painter of Southwestern landscapes, cowboys and Indians. He rendered The Last Drop in 1912. In 1923, after Western Story Magazine ran Megargee’s work on its cover, Stetson purchased the painting and its rights. It became the company’s familiar logo, appearing in ads, on hatboxes and, most famously, on the crown liner of every Stetson hat. As popular as the Stetson became, the best- selling hat of the late 19th century, both east and west of the Mississippi, remained the derby, pictured here and on the head of one of its more famous Western proponents, lawman and sometime gambler turned journalist Bat Masterson. Designed in 1849 by London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler (the other name by which it is known), the derby became the ubiquitous “city gent” (or “dude”) hat of its day, outselling even the Stetson. The dude abides, indeed. This circa-1910s postcard view shows the inner workings of the John B. Stetson Co. main hat factory in Philadelphia. Incorporated in 1891, the factory employed some 5,000 workers at its zenith, offering them such incentives as annual earnings bonuses and English classes for immigrant workers. Each man and woman on the Stetson line was a specialist, honing his or her skills at blocking, sanding, burning, steaming, shaping and finishing. By the 1920s they were turning out some 2 million hats a year. A pair of nattily dressed Westerners pose proudly with their Stetsons in this circa 1870 tintype. The crude cloth backdrop and grassy ground at their feet suggest their portrait sitting was a spur-of-the-moment decision, perhaps occasioned by the arrival of an itinerant photographer. Though Stetson had been in business only a handful of years by this time, already in evidence is the tendency of owners to shape their hats to their individual whims. The cowboy at right, for example, has opted to pinch his crown into what is known alternately today as a peak, campaign or Russell crease. Of all the performers to don a Stetson, Buffalo Bill Cody remains the most celebrated. Here he poses in signature theatrical garb and an upswept Stetson during the 1890s heyday of his internationally touring Wild West arena show. Perhaps no other figure on stage or screen did more to spread Stetson’s fame. Cowgirls also took to the Stetson, as evinced in this autographed 1916 publicity photo of Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Real Wild West performer “Buckskin Bessie” Herberg. Bessie joined the Oklahoma-based show at age 16 in 1911 and did tricks with her horse, Happy. Rivaling her sometime boss Buffalo Bill in popularity and billing was “Little Sure Shot” Annie Oakley, posing here circa 1890 in her own upswept Stetson affixed with a metal star—perhaps one of the many shooting competition awards Oakley garnered in her lifetime. Silent screen film star Tom Mix was so inseparable in theatergoers’ minds from his trademark high-peaked, wide-brimmed elegant white Stetson that the company named that style hat (pictured at left) after him. Hollywood’s first Western star wore it well in 291 films. Hollywood breathed new life into the cult of cowboy hat aficionados, as Stetson and other makers raced to outshine one another. In this publicity still for the 1950 Western musical comedy ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ star Betty Hutton is slightly off target in a rhinestoned getup and hat the more modest Oakley would likely have eschewed. Renowned for his accurate portrayals of Western characters was silent film star William S. Hart, who was born in 1864 (the year before Stetson opened for business) and counted among his friends real-life lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Here he wears one of his trademark authentic hats as gunman turned sheriff Careless Carmody in ‘Breed of Men’ (1919). Among the top box office draws for three decades, Western movie icon John Wayne was a man of many hats, often Stetsons. Above is the distressed hat he wore in the Westerns ‘Hondo’ (1953), ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959) and ‘The Train Robbers’ (1973). Wayne poses in the hat in this publicity still for the latter film. Many of his hats are on display at the museum John Wayne: An American Experience, in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Not to be outdone in expressions of millinery individualism were the artists of the American West. Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe—posing here for Bruce Weber in 1984, two years before her death—was especially fond of this black Stetson, which she wore on many camping, rafting and, presumably, painting excursions. It appears in many portraits of the artist, some taken by husband Alfred Stieglitz. “Cowboy Artist” Charles Marion “Charlie” Russell was more of a traditionalist with regard to the cut of his Stetson, which takes center stage in many of the drawings, paintings and sculptures he rendered of himself. In this 1907 studio portrait he wears what appears to be a Boss of the Plains canted back on his head like a halo. Known for obsessively sketching Western scenes and figures on any available surface, Russell often used his hats as canvases. Championing the centuries-old slouch hat in this circa-1890s self-portrait is photographer Edward S. Curtis, who was known for his signature sepia-toned images of American Indians, often posing in the even older warbonnet. Among Curtis’ subjects was President Theodore Roosevelt, who on July 1, 1898, rode to victory and fame up Cuba’s San Juan Heights wearing a slouch hat of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (aka “Rough Riders”). Had the president inspired the artist or vice versa?