By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
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.
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.
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 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:
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)