"Not by its six-guns and its saddles, not in its songs and legends does the Old West most truly live in history. It lives in its Stetson."—Ralph Richmond, The Stetson Century, 1965
The Stetson cowboy hat is an icon of the American West. Synonymous with the cowboy hero, the Stetson represents a romantic lifestyle of mythic proportions. In reality Stetson hats where worn by more than just cowboys. Appreciated more for quality than brand name, the hat served as a multifunctional tool for settlers and cowboys struggling to make a living on the Plains.
The Stetson name refers to its successful Philadelphia hat-maker, John Batterson Stetson. Born in 1830, Stetson grew up in a family of hat manufacturers. He was pushed out of the family business shortly after his father's death. Plagued with health problems, Stetson moved West to reap medicinal benefits from "clean" living. He arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri, and worked at a brick factory until flooding destroyed the plant. After trying to enlist in the army and being refused because for poor health, Stetson joined a group of gold miners headed for Colorado.
According to legend, the first Stetson hat was manufactured during this journey. Stormy weather forced the mining party to repeatedly construct shelters from animal hides, but damp conditions led to deteriorating leather. Stetson used his hat-making experience to process the fur into a waterproof felt cloth. For fun, he also made a felt hat that allegedly resembled an upside-down bag. Near Pike's Peak, Stetson sold the hat to a transient cattleman.
A New Style of Hat
After failing to find gold in Colorado, Stetson returned to Philadelphia to gain success manufacturing his new style of hat. It was lighter-weight than other examples, water resistant, and utilized an unusually wide brim for shade. This altered form of the sombrero was named the "Boss of the Plains," and marketed to farmers, ranchers, and cowboys working on the prairie. Hats were common in the 19th century, but the Stetson Hat Company was unique in marketing its product to a targeted demographic. The Stetson's popularity grew rapidly after Buffalo Bill Cody wore the hat in his Wild West shows. Other well-known personalities who later donned the Stetson included John Wayne, Tom Mix, Lyndon B. Johnson, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. By 1885 the Stetson Company was worth $3,000,000, manufactured hundreds of hats daily, and housed more than 1,100 employees in a vast plant complex that included a hospital, gymnasium, Sunday-school classes, and a free library.
The Stetson Hat Company continued after its founder's death in 1906, halting production only briefly during World War II to make military headwear and parachute harnesses. The company returned to civilian hat production after the war, but high fur prices and low market demand proved fatal. The Stetson Hat Company closed in 1971. The Stetson name was licensed to other hat-makers; though modern hats continue to carry the Stetson label, none of them are manufactured by the original company.
This Stetson Number 1 Quality Hat belonged to Hawley Needham of Tonganoxie, Kansas. Needham, a Civil War veteran, brought his family to Kansas in 1868. He farmed and served periodically as Tonganoxie's mayor. The hat's quality implies that he may have been a man of means. He likely purchased the black felt hat with pin-rolled edge around 1880. Needham's grandson donated the hat to the Kansas Historical Society in 1963. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Stetson Hat
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.