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The Cowboy Hat

In 1865, the John B. Stetson hat company introduced a new product.  It called it the Boss of the Plains hat: a durable, waterproof, good-looking hat for men.  The Boss of the Plains had a wide brim and a rounded top, and quickly became one of Stetson’s top sellers.

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Brand-new Boss of the Plains, fresh out of the hatbox.

The Boss of the Plains dominated men’s hat fashion (back when there was still such a thing as men’s hat fashion) for about twenty years.  Post-Civil War photos frequently show men sporting one.  The hat was originally made of beaver pelts.  Stetson said it took about 42 beaver belly pelts to make one hat, which retailed for around $4.50, which is roughly $64.00 in 2017 money.  The design of the hat didn’t really change over this time… not really.  Not the product that Stetson manufactured, anyway.

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The Montgomery-Ward catalogue was the Everything Store of the 19th century.

The change started with the customers.  The Boss of the Plains was designed to look good in all situations, whether you lived and worked in a city or worked outside on a farm or ranch.  The hat was practical for cowboys, who took to it immediately.  Already the cowboy was a romantic figure in American popular culture, and the Stetson company capitalized on this.  They got word of a story of a cowboy wearing a Boss of the Plains when his canteen sprung a leak and saved his water in the hat.  The story inspired an ad featuring a cowboy giving his horse a drink of water from his hat, playing up the waterproof angle as well as attaching the product to the popular cowboy image.

Cowboys’ work is known to be rough and dirty.  The scenes you see in westerns where they’re sleeping under the stars around a campfire out on the prairie are accurate.  And when you see a cowboy pull his hat down over his face for the night, it’s interesting to note just where he grabs the hat.  It would make sense to grab the hat by the brim, right?  Otherwise you’ll dent and crease that nice, rounded top, right?

Crease and dent it certainly did.  This was the mark of a working man, back when “work” necessarily meant hard, physical labor that got your hands dirty and gave you calluses.  To spot a working man, you just had to look at his hat, which he would take off by clutching the top.  There were different kinds of creases in the crown, too.  The Carlsbad crease, named for Carlsbad, New Mexico, is what cowboys called a straight crease that ran from front to back.  The Montana peak had four dents in the crown, created when the cowboy would grab the hat with four fingers.

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Carlsbad crease (left) and Montana peak (right).  Any way you like it, pardner.

By the early 20th century, the Boss of the Plains was more popular than ever, but by this time, they were better known as cowboy hats.  Entertainers capitalizing on western culture wore them both on stage and screen.  The hats came to be known as ten-gallon hats.  Many believe this is a reference to their size, exaggerated by the claim that they could hold ten gallons of water.  (In fact, an ordinary cowboy hat can’t hold more than about three quarts.)  The expression is actually a corruption of the Spanish “tan galán”, which translates roughly as “so fine”, as in “un sombrero tan galán,” or “a really nice hat.”

The beaver population being what it is, and with demand ever increasing, Stetson started making cowboy hats out of cloth.  The cloth hats looked just as good, but weren’t waterproof like their original beaver pelt hats.  These new hats also came pre-creased.  The Carlsbad crease was by far the more popular look among civilians, while the Montana peak caught on with police and military uniforms.

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Dwight Eisenhower and his Stetson in the 1950s, our last president to wear a hat.  Well, sort of.

The cowboy hat remains popular today, though its popularity has definitely retreated from its high-water mark in the last century.  It’s more popular in some parts of the country than in others, particularly in the West, where the cowboy heritage is still more strongly identified with.  The cowboy hat still operates as a symbol of the American myth of the rugged individual, a myth that came out of the Old West and has never really lost its draw.  While hats might not be as popular as they once were, Stetson’s cowboy hat endures as an American icon.

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Iconic Stetson ad from 1924.  Notice the cowboy’s hat isn’t creased yet.


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