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Sunday, May 8, 2011
Stetson®: THE BOSS OF THE PLAINS
THE HAT THAT WON THE WEST
A cowboy without his hat is just a man on a horse.
The concept of a broad-brimmed hat with a high crown worn by a rider on horseback can be seen as far back as the Mongolian horsemen of the 13th century. A tall crown provided insulation, the wide brim, shade. In hot, sunny climates, hats evolved to have wide brims, such as the sombrero of Mexico.
Before John Batterson Stetson created the “The Boss of the Plains”, men who drove cattle and worked the range sported any number of hat styles. They generally wore whatever headgear was required at their previous profession so it wasn’t unusual to see them in a sailor hat, a barret, derbies, Civil War paraphernalia, and even top hats. None of these were very useful out on the prairie. And luckily this was soon to change and a legend was about to be born.
John Batterson Stetson started his life in East Orange, New Jersey in 1830. His father, Stephen Stetson, was a successful hatter and taught his children the hatting trade. Having developed tuberculosis as a young man, a doctor advised John B. to move west and in 1859 he struck out for St. Joseph, Missouri.
While there, he tried to join the Union Army in the early 1860’s but was rejected do to his poor health. Undefeated he worked as a bricklayer which went fairly well until the river flooded and washed his business away. At loose ends, he joined a group heading west to the gold fields of Colorado.
This didn’t “pan” out but during his stay in the mountains, he fashioned a head covering from beaver hides. After a mule driver paid him a $5 gold piece for the hat right off his head, Mr. Stetson, being no fool, decided to refine, manufacture and sell this type of product.
By 1865 he was back in Philadelphia working in the hat manufacturing trade. A year later the “Boss of the Plains” came into being, and after that came the front creased Carlsbad, destined to become “the” cowboy style. The Stetson® hat has captured the essence of the west, has become an American icon, and is now an indelible part of western history.
The rugged individualism of the West was perfectly represented by a Hat that could be shaped differently by each wearer -- a punched-in crown, a bent brim, a braided leather band were all different ways to make a Stetson® one’s own.
By 1886, Stetson owned the world’s biggest Hat factory in Philadelphia and employed nearly 4,000 workers. And by 1906, the factory was putting out about 2 million hats a year. John B. transformed hat making from a manual to a mechanized industry. He introduced iron cutting and shaping machines, improving quality control. He was also among the first U.S. tycoons to offer benefits to reward workers for hard work. He dispensed free health care to employees and gave shares in his company to valued workers. As a philanthropist, he founded StetsonUniversity in Deland, Florida, and built a Philadelphia hospital.
Inside the cowboy hat is a memorial bow to past hatters, who developed brain damage from treating felt with toxic mercury (which gave rise to the expression "Mad as a Hatter"). The bow on the inside hatband at the rear of the hat resembles a Skull and crossbones. "Early hatters used mercury in the making of their felt. Their bodies absorbed mercury, and after several years of making hats, the hatters developed violent and uncontrollable muscle twitching. The ignorance of the times caused people to attribute these strange gyrations to madness, not mercury.”
SINGING COWBOYS IN TEN GALLON HATS
In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, a hat was an indispensable item in every man’s wardrobe. Stetson focused on expensive, high-quality hats that represented both a real investment for the working cowboy and statement of success for the city dweller.
Early on, Stetson® hats became associated with legends of the West, including “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane, Will Rogers, and Annie Oakley. It is said that George Custer rode into the Battle of Little Big Horn wearing a Stetson® . Later on, Western movie cowboys were quick to adopt the Stetson® ; many were drawn to the largest most flamboyant styles available. Tom Mix, an early-20th century movie star, wore a ten gallon hat (my Mom rode in his car).
Texans were known for their preference for the "Ten Gallon," model, possibly so named for its enormous crown which at least appeared to be able to hold ten gallons were it to be dipped into a stream and used as a pail. An early Stetson® advertising image, a painting of a cowboy dipping his hat into a stream to provide water for his horse symbolized the Cowboy hat as an essential part of a stockman’s gear.
According to Win Blevins' Dictionary of the American West (p388), the term "ten-gallon" has nothing to do with the hat's liquid capacity, but derives from the Spanish word galón (braid), ten indicating the number of braids used as a hat band.
The first American law-enforcement agency to adopt Stetson’s western hat as part of their uniform was the Texas Rangers. In the Second Boer War, the flat brimmed Stetson® became the standard issue of the second Canadian Contingent, becoming recognized throughout the British Empire as a symbol of Canada. Canadian police, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police's (RCMP) Red Serge dress uniform includes a Stetson® with a flat brim.
Tonight I'll be dreaming of Stetsons® and the men who wear them!