Stetson’s Creation for Fashion and Function
The cowboy hat has a rich legacy in this country’s history. The title of "cowboy" came from the Spanish and Mexican word for the job, which was "vaquero." Many today refuse to consider the cowboy era is a period of time that ended, and they continue to wear the cowboy hat not only for fashion but more for function.
John B. Stetson, son of a hatmaker from New Jersey, headed out for the West. This was partly for the dryer air for his health. He is credited with developing the first Western hat made widely available. His hat was called "The Boss of the Plains," and it was made of felt and shaped into a simple, round top with a flat, wide brim. Stetson commented that the hat did an excellent job of serving as a shield against the rain and elements of the cold.
During a camping trip where Stetson and his companions camped under the stars, Stetson wanted to prove to his friends that cloth could be made without weaving. According to the book, Cowboys & Trappings of the Old West by William Manns and Elizabeth Clair Flood (available online through Amazon or Books-a-Million), Stetson demonstrated the felting process by taking some beaver and rabbit skins, and shaving off the fur with a sharp hatchet. Then, he trimmed a hickory sapling and made a hunter’s bow. With this bow he agitated the fur, separating the fine fur from the long hairs and dirt. This was a process known to all old-time hatters and it required great skill.
As the fur fell softly on its own weight, Stetson took a mouthful of water and blew a fine spray of moisture over it. Shortly after, he had a thin mat of fur he could lift and roll. He dipped the matted sheet of fur into a boiling pot of water at the campfire, removed it and worked it with his hands dipping it regularly until the fur shrank and locked together forming a blanket of felt.
Stetson created a felt hat on this trip with a tall crown and wide brim, which he wore on the trail. Supposedly, a passerby driving a team of oxen saw the practical value of the hat and paid Stetson five dollars for his headgear. Once Stetson’s health improved, he moved back east and opened his own hat business in Philadelphia.
When he began marketing and selling the hat, those heading west would often pay five dollars for his high-quality hats. As the hat would get worn and fingers would grab the top for putting the hat on and off, crown styles began to develop, and some would round up the sides of the brim for better visibility. These styles would often reflect the wearer’s preference.
Once the demand for his hats became huge, the Texas Rangers were the first organized police force to be fitted with cowboy hats for their uniforms. The Texas Rangers were popularized in the TV mini-series from the 1980s, Lonesome Dove. This film featured Augustus McCrae, played by Robert Duvall, and Woodrow Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones. After the movie came out, the popularity of Western hats made resurgence with popular culture.
The two common styles of Western hats today are felt and straw. Typically, the straw hat is used for warmer, sunny months and felt hats are used in cooler weather. A good-quality felt Western hat can handle a short time in a rain shower. After all, it takes water to make a good felt hat.
In addition, a felt Western hat can easily be shaped as you desire through steam. A kettle with a spout that can be left open is ideal for steaming and shaping felt hats. Once the heat and steam begin to interact with the felt, the hat begins to soften and you can shape the crown and brim into your desired shape. Simply hold the part of the hat you intend to shape over the steam.
A cowboy hat is also a functional item to wear around the farm. The stiff construction allows protection against falling limbs or planks, and the wide brim will keep spider webs and limbs out of your face. In addition to providing protection against the sun’s harmful rays, a broad-brimmed Western hat shades the eyes. During winter, the felt hats do an excellent job of holding in body heat. This is helpful when 80 percent of the body’s heat is lost in winter through the head.
Whether you are riding a horse or a tractor, be sure to have a little heritage on your head and try a cowboy hat. You may find the Western hat serves as many uses today as it did during the taming of the west.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.