Published on Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The History Of An American Brand
By Philip J. Reed,
Writing on Behalf of Stetson
Of all the icons of the Old West, one of the most instantly recognizable is the cowboy hat. When John B. Stetson moved West and started making his own hats to keep himself dry, he didn't know that he was creating the defining look of the American cowboy. He did know he had a winner though, and he'd probably be astonished to see that his invention is still keeping cowboys protected from sun and rain today.
John Stetson got bad news from his doctor in the early 1860s. As the Civil War was raging, diseases such as tuberculosis spread quickly, afflicting the New Jersey hatter along with tens of thousands of others. For the health of his lungs, Stetson left the family business and went west, taking the only treatment available at the time: clean air.
Stetson tried to earn a living prospecting for gold. Even the California gold rush that started in 1849 wasn't enough to sate the hunger for gold, so prospectors, panners and miners throughout the West tried to make a living from the land. Stetson wound up in Colorado's mountains, and although he had a few scores, he didn't find the big strike he hoped to discover. It's lucky for generations of cowboys that he didn't; if he had, he might not have found the inspiration to design his famous cowboy hat.
High altitudes and bad weather weren't doing Stetson's health much good. During one expedition in the rain, he noticed that the local beavers always seemed to stay dry. As soon as they left their pond, they shook the water from their coats. This ability to repel water gave Stetson an idea of how he could design a hat that would repel rain as efficiently as a beaver's coat. He already knew how to felt fur for hats, so he used beaver pelts as the basis for his new invention. He gave the new hat a broad brim to keep rain and sun off his face and gave the crown a waterproof lining so the hat could double as a bucket. He kept the crown high to insulate his head; this design kept his head warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The hat that won the West was originally made back east. In 1865, Stetson took his savings of about $100 and went east to Philadelphia to found a business. The West was too sparsely populated for the manufacturing and distribution network Stetson envisioned. Even though his hat business began with $10 in furs and a single tiny workroom, he always knew it would grow. Post-war Philadelphia was booming, so it was the ideal location for his shop.
Stetson's first hat design became the prototype for the Boss of the Plains, the model that remains the company's best-selling hat today. Almost every man wore a hat in the 1860s, but no one had a hat like Stetson's. It made him a minor celebrity and drew plenty of questions, making Stetson his own best form of advertising. Although it took a while to catch on in Philadelphia, anyone familiar with life out West saw the value in the hats immediately and bought them by the dozen. Within a few years, Stetson's one-man operation employed thousands of workers and supplied hats to anyone who worked outside and needed a durable, practical hat that could stand up to hard weather and hard work. Other manufacturers tried to copy his success, but the gold-embossed Stetson name on the inner band was a hallmark of quality; buyers wouldn't settle for less.
Stetson's company was noteworthy for more than hats. At the time, hatters drifted from job to job, rarely working for the same employer for long. Stetson changed that by offering his employees benefits, paying them well and giving them time off. At a time when other companies were facing strikes and shut-downs, Stetson kept production high because workers were happy. Before his death in 1906, Stetson had become wealthy enough to found a university bearing his name. Stetson University in Florida still uses his iconic hat as its symbol.
The Stetson brand got a boost from Hollywood in the early part of the 20th century. In silent films, white hats and black hats were a quick, wordless shorthand for telling the good guys and the bad guys apart. White or black though, all the cowboys' hats were Stetsons.
As the country grew and the West became more populous, the Stetson company moved closer to the heart of its market, opening a main plant in Garland, Texas. The original Boss of the Plains design is still available, but the company's catalog has expanded to dozens of new designs and materials. Stetson's Western hats are the worldwide symbol of the cowboy and the embodiment of the American West.
For Further Reading:
Stetson Hats, Stetson Hat Company
The Stetson Hat History, TrueCowboy.com
John B. Stetson Biography, the Stetson Mansion