Cowboy Hat History

In 1840s America, cowboys and cowboy hats didn’t exist. The first men to move west, the mountain men, wore hats mostly made of wool or pelts. Long before fences, during the open range era, as men began to filter west trailing cattle, they wore whatever hat they had. As the cowboying trade developed, these new “cow boys” wore a plethora of materials and styles: top hats, hunters’ wools, top hats, sailor hats, and leftover Civil War hats. Hats were influenced by existing jobs, cultural practices, and regional and immigration movements. Cowboy hats didn’t yet exist.

In 1872, Montgomery Ward offered rural America opportunities to buy store-bought clothing for the working class. The catalog offered only one broad-brimmed hat, the farmer-type “Men’s Panama Hat.” Four years later, in 1878, Ward offered a new line, the “Men’s Planter’s Hat.” These plain hats were broad-brimmed with a round, slightly shaped crown, much like today’s finished but unshaped cowboy hat. Independent-minded cowboys each began shaping them to suit their personalities and regional influences. Although Ward’s hats offered an affordable broad-brimmed hat to the emerging cowboy trade, cowboy hats only truly developed after a young hatter’s son moved west from Philadelphia for his health. John B. Stetson saw cowboys and noticed their growing preference for broad-brimmed fur felt hats. He noted the individual styling that each cowboy applied to his brim and crown. So he returned to Philadelphia and produced the world’s first cowboy hat, the $5 “Boss of the Plains.” This unshaped, round crowned, flat-brimmed hat became the quintessential cowboy hat, influenced by the Mexican sombrero, yet made with a lower crown and narrower brim for the windier conditions of the American west. Each cowboy would shape his Boss of the Plains to fit his personality.

Toward the end of the 1800s, after seeing the popularity of various self-shaped styles, Stetson began producing various pre-shaped styles. Other companies began offering cowboy hats, but the Stetson remained the capstone. In 1883, Montgomery Ward offered a selection of cowboy hats. Sears, Roebuck, and Company offered a hat in 1900.

A cowboy’s hat was highly prized and was very expensive, often costing a month or two’s wages. He or she would withstand great inconvenience or risk to retrieve a lost Stetson.

Cowboy hats and styles of rodeo and dude cowboys were greatly influenced by the emergence of cowboy movies. Ten gallon hats, hugely popular because of the movies but impractical on the range, did not gain wide acceptance among working cowboys. The range of cowboy hat materials and styles, often regionally influenced, has changed little. Certain styles become more popular, but the old styles have their followers, too.

Today’s better cowboy hats are made from the same raw materials as yesteryear: beaver fur. The process has changed little in 150 years. Now, however, many raw hat bodies –and sometimes the finished products - are made overseas. Many hats, including the famous Stetsons, are now made by machines. However, a few hatters still exist who make top-quality cowboy hats the way they did in the late 1800s: by hand.

The Jackson Hole Hat Company is dedicated to the high-quality art of making cowboy hats the old way, using the finest raw materials and painstaking personal craftsmanship.

* I Can See By Your Outfit, by Tom Lindmier and Steve Mount, High Plains Press, Glendo, WY 1996
* The Cowboy Hat Book, by William Reynolds and Ritch Ranch, Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Layton, UT