Before there was a cowboy hat, there was no standard head wear in the Wild West. Derbies, fezzes, Asian conical hats, boaters, top hats, fedoras, military hats, soft cloth caps, coonskin hats; anything and everything was used.
The Stetson Case
In the early 1860s, John Stetson, then a young, New Jersey hat maker, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Afraid that he would never get another chance to do so, and hoping to improve his health in the drier climate, he traveled West.
During a hunting expedition in Pikes Peak, Colorado, he fashioned a large brim hat from fur as something of a joke. Then Stetson realized that his “joke” was perfect for the cowboys: the wide brim protected the face and neck from the sun and rain and the tall crown kept the head cool. Because it was made of fur the hat was water proof, perfect to drink from; with such a large size it could be used for signaling in the vast plains of the American West; it could serve as a fan; and a signaling device to move cows around.
The We Don’t Know Possibility
As far back as Medieval Times, Mongolian horsemen wore high crowned, wide brimmed hats.
The Spaniards brought to America a flat crowned, wide brim hat, which became popular in Spanish California (like the one worn by Zorro), called the Poblano. Then, in Mexico the vaqueros added a much larger brim and a conical crown.
Montgomery Ward offered through its catalog a wide-brimmed hat made of straw. It sold quite well in the West.
The Cowboy Hat might have jut developed from these early forms and Stetson simply copied an existing model.
The Making of an American Icon
In any case, back in Philadelphia in 1865 Stetson began to manufacture the simple crown, straight brim hat that became known as the Boss of the Plains.
It sold for $5, which was a hefty sum at the time, and its popularity grew overnight, for the hat was not only right for work, but it bestowed upon the wearer an aura of independence, ruggedness and masculinity.
At first most everybody wore the hat in its original, plain pattern. Eventually creases were added, mostly by handling accidents and the impact of nature. Later on many cowpokes started to place folds and pleats on the crown for identification purposes. The brim was curved in various ways. Certain combinations of creases, and brim curves would tell where the cowboy was from, where he lived or what ranch he worked for.
Obviously some styles became more popular than others. The single crease in the front of the hat, angling from the high back to the front (think Hopalong Cassidy) known as the Carlsbad Crease after Carlsbad, New Mexico, was the first style to get wide acceptance.
The Montana Peak, which was popular in Montana, had four indentations on the top presumably from the four fingers used to take off and put on the hat. It had its origin in the Mexican Charro sombrero.
The Augustus Crease, a Carlsbad-style with two extra dents on the side has also been popular.
In due course Stetson began offering pre-creased hats but the basic pattern, that of the Boss of the Plains, has not changed in more than 100 years.
The Stetson has been worn by real cowboys, gunfighters, movie stars and even a president or two.
In the 21st Century the Cowboy hat remains one of the most recognizable American icons in the world.