Thursday, June 30, 2016

JOHN B. STETSON – AND THE ICONIC COWBOY HAT OF THE WEST

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

When thinking (or writing) about life in the American West, particularly during the mid to late 19th century, certain visuals come to mind. One of those visuals is the way people dressed, and the importance of certain articles of clothing.

Just as important as the equipment (or gear) needed on a daily basis for survival, there were two crucial aspects of his attire that a man wore everyday without fail. Rain or shine, dust storm or blizzard, triple digit temperatures or freezing cold and hurricane force winds, every cowboy, rancher, sheriff, marshal, gambler, or outlaw needed a good pair of boots and a great HAT. [Pictured: Gary Cooper, Saratoga Trunk (1945) Warner Bros.]

And, as you might have guessed from the subject of today’s post, when it came to hats, John B. Stetson knew exactly what every man living out West wanted and needed. Put simply, all of the high crowned, wide brimmed western hats you see today are attributed to John B. Stetson’s innovative design.

John Batterson Stetson was born 05 May 1830 in Orange, New Jersey, the 7th of 12 children. Like his father before him, he learned the trade of a hatter. From an early age, John B. had the knowledge and skill to make hats, but it wasn’t until a diagnosis of Tuberculosis caused him to travel West to improve his health that he saw how inadequate hats were that cowboys, settlers, and even the Colorado gold rush miners were wearing. Not only were they poorly made, they offered little protection against inclement weather or shade from the often brutal intensity of the sun.

Determined to create a sturdy, innovative design made of the highest quality, Stetson founded the John B. Stetson Company in 1865. A year later, he began manufacturing his first “open crowned” western hat known as the Boss of the Plains.

Natural in color, the lightweight hat had a 4-inch crown and 4-inch brim. Made from waterproof beaver felt, the hat was durable and its wide brim protected the wearer from the harsh sunlight.

To produce the high quality of the hat and ensure its waterproof ability, 42 beaver belly pelts were needed to produce the tight weave of the hat. As a result, the Boss proved so waterproof, it protected as good as an umbrella for its owner. Additionally, it could be held upside down like a bucket to hold water in its crown, which not only enabled the wearer to drink from its brim but use as a drinking vessel for his horse, too. The hat could also be used to carry oats in the crown to his horse.

A plain strap was used as the hatband. To further demonstrate the quality of this first western hat by Stetson, the hat was lined and had a sweatband, as well as a bow on the sweatband to help identify the front from the back of the hat. Also embossed in gold on every sweatband was John B. Stetson Company. Incidentally, all of these features continue in all Stetson hats manufactured to this day.

Although initially priced at just under $5.00, a John B Stetson cowboy hat could cost $10 to $20 or more, depending upon the materials used for a specific style. Considering a top hand’s wages were $30.00 a month, although the purchase of a Stetson hat was a big purchase, its reputation and durability made it almost a lifetime investment.

The next style western hat produced by Stetson was the Carlsbad. This model featured a front crease and is the image most closely recognized as the official cowboy hat style we know today. The Buckeye came next and was extra wide and high.

Hats were also customized for individuals by steaming and blocking the hat to roll the brim, and/or make additional creases on either side of the crown. A different hatband could be added, as well as the “stampede strings” to fasten beneath the wearer’s jaw.

[Pictured is an illustration of the five types of creases offered in a Stetson.]

The popularity and reputation of the Stetsons can also be documented by the number of historic figures who wore them on a daily basis.

Western legends such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley wore Stetsons. United States Presidents who wore Stetsons include Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Over the years, special Stetson designs were customized for law enforcement, soldiers, and even motion picture actors.

Actor Tom Selleck felt so strongly about the hat he wore in his western films, he would wear the hat for 7-8 months before shooting began, in order to connect better with the character. During filming of Lonesome Dove, actor Robert Duvall didn’t want to wear the flat-top Spanish style hat designated for his character. Instead, he wanted Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae to wear a buff-colored hat with a Carlsbad style center crease that he’d seen in an 1890 photograph of a Texas Ranger.

Actor John Wayne favored a pinched-front, triangle-crease style (useful when putting on or taking off the hat). The hat he wore in his final film, The Shootist, also featured a 6-inch crown.

The first law enforcement agency to adapt Stetsons as part of their uniform was the Texas Rangers. In addition, members of the U.S. National Park Service, as well as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wear custom Stetson hats.

As for the legacy of the man himself, his company continues today and is located in Garland, Texas.

As an employer, John B. Stetson believed that “providing for his employees would lend stability to their lives”. He provided unprecedented benefits to his employees, such as a safe working environment, health benefits including a hospital, as well as a park, and houses for his 5,000 employees. He built a factory that grew to include 25 buildings on 9 acres.

In 1878, he co-founded Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Philadelphia that still operates today.

In addition, John B. built grammar and high schools, as well as colleges, including Stetson and Temple Universities. In 1900, he created the first Law School in Florida, Stetson University Law School.

By the time John B. Stetson died on 18 February 1906 at age 75, his namesake company was selling 2 million hats a year all around the world. By 1915, nine years after his death, the company employed 5,400 employees and produced 3.3 million hats.

Not only did he establish a tremendously successful company, his skill, ingenuity, and determination to produce quality hats created one of the most iconic, lasting images of the American West that is recognized throughout the world.

I hope you enjoyed this post about how the famous cowboy hat as we know it came to be. And if you want to meet a heroic character who wears a Stetson, check out Jordan Blake (the former Texas Ranger turned Pinkerton Detective) in WHISPER IN THE WIND, my sensuous historical time travel romance set in 1885 Texas. Available in print and EPUB formats on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Please visit my website for buy links: https://ashleykathbilsky.com/bookshelf/



Resources:

Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Hat Company, 1865-1970 – Jeffrey B. Snyder (Schiffer Publishing, 1997)
The Cowboy Hat Book - William Reynolds & Ritch Rand (Gibb Smith, Publisher, 2003)
The Look of the Old West - William Foster Harris (Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2007)

8 comments:

  1. What a great article. There was so much I didn't know about Stetson or his creations. Amazing information, Ashley. It's so amazing to me how one person can make such a difference. I really liked how Stetson took care of his employees. It shows the character of the man.
    All the best to you, Ashley...

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    1. Thank you, Sarah J. I agree with you. Perhaps being told by a doctor that he had tuberculosis and would not live long made him more determined to see more and accomplish more. He did try to enlist in the Union Army but was not accepted because of the TB. Perhaps the illness made him more aware of the struggles of others, too. Either way, how he cared for his family of employees, and also did other great philanthropic work for otbers, certainly was remarkable. A good man.

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  2. Great post, Ashley. I had no idea Mr. Stetson was such a good employer. His employees had life better than most.

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    1. Thank you, Caroline. He reminds me of the person who took the time to build a bridge on his journey. When asked why he did it; after all, he would not pass that way again, the man replied to make the journey easier for those who come after me. To show compassion for others, to build schools, colleges, and do what he could for his employees, as well as the homeless shelter and soup kitchen for the poor,, it seems everything he tried to do in his private life was to lift others and help their journey. .

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  3. Wonderful article, Ashley! A keeper for all of us western writers and readers. I, too, am impressed by Mr. Stetson's generosity and caring spirit. But I do feel sorry for all the poor beavers who lost their lives.

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    1. Me, too. Hats were also made of fur (coonskin hats) and wool, but they didn't hold up. The beaver (felt) hat process was more durable and waterproof. One hundred and fifty-one years ago, without any vegan or animal friendly alternative, it was the best option. Still, sad. We have choices today. Thanks, Lyn, and glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. That was a great post, Ashley... not only about the Stetson hats, which is fascinating... but because Mr. Stetson did a whole lot good in the world.

    Also, this is synchronicity for me. I was doing some research and ran across this fabulous cowboy hat site: http://thelastbestwest.com/ ... oh, I remember, I was looking for the right color descriptions for one of my cowboy heroes' hats.

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    1. Thanks, Savannah. Yep, when a color of a fabric or hat was produced is important. I am up to my elbows doing research now for final edits. Some readers are picky about historical accuracy over little things, and some don't care much, but I try to be as historically accurate as possible. And research is fun for me...a time-consuming distraction at times...but I enjoy delving into the past.

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