The cowboy hat is a high-crowned, wide-brimmed hat best known as the defining piece of attire for the North American cowboy. Today it is worn by many people, and is particularly associated with ranch workers in the western and southern United States, western Canada and northern Mexico, with many country, regional Mexican and sertanejo music performers, and with participants in the North American rodeo circuit. It is recognized around the world as part of Old West apparel.
The cowboy hat as known today has many antecedents to its design, including Mexican hats such as the sombrero, the various designs of wide-brimmed hat worn by farmers and stockmen in the eastern United States, as well as the designs used by the United States Cavalry.
The first western model was the open-crowned "Boss of the Plains", and after that came the front-creased Carlsbad, destined to become "the" cowboy style. The high-crowned, wide-brimmed, soft-felt western hats that followed are intimately associated with the cowboy image.
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. The hat has a tall crown that provides insulation, a wide brim, and shade. Hot and sunny climates inspire designs with very wide brims such as the sombrero of Mexico.
It is not clear when the cowboy hat received its name. However, European-Americans in the Western United States originally had no standard headwear. People moving West wore many styles of hat, including top hats, bowlers, remains of Civil War headgear, and sailor hats. Contrary to popular belief, it was the bowler and not the cowboy hat that was the most popular in the American West, prompting Lucius Beebe to call it "the hat that won the West". The working cowboy wore wide-brimmed and high-crowned hats. The hats were most likely adopted from the Mexican Vaqueros before the invention of the modern design. John Batterson Stetson is cred for originating the modern day American Cowboy Hat.
The original "Boss of the Plains", manufactured by Stetson in 1865, was flat-brimmed, had a straight sided crown, with rounded corners. These light-weight, waterproof hats were natural in color, with four-inch crowns and brims. A plain hatband was fitted to adjust head size. The sweatband bore Stetson's name. While only making one style of hat, they came in different qualities ranging from one-grade material at five dollars apiece to pure beaver felt hats for thirty dollars each. J.B. Stetson was the first to market the "Boss of the Plains" to cowboys, and it has remained the universal image of the American West. The charisma of the West was carried back East when adventurers returned in the expensive "Boss of the plains" style hat. 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 a real investment for the working cowboy and a statement of success for the city dweller.
The durability and water-resistance of the original Stetson obtained additional publicity in 1912, when the battleship USS Maine was raised from Havana harbor, where it had sunk in 1898. A Stetson hat was found in the wreck, which had been submerged in seawater for 14 years. The hat had been exposed to ooze, mud, and plant growth. However, the hat was cleaned off, and appeared to be undamaged.
Modern cowboy hats are made of fur-based felt, straw or, less often, leather. They are sold with a tall, rounded crown and a wide flat brim. They have a simple sweat band on the inside to stabilize the fit of the head, and usually a small decorative hat band on the outside of the crown. Hats are customized by creasing the crown and rolling the brim. Often a more decorative hat band is added. In some places, "stampede strings" or "wind strings" are also attached. Hats can be manufactured in virtually any color, but are most often seen in shades of beige, brown and black. Beginning in the 1940s, pastel colors were introduced, seen often on hats worn by movie cowboys and rodeo riders. "Today's cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in construction and design since the first one was created in 1865 by J.B. Stetson."
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. Lack of medical knowledge caused people to attribute these strange gyrations to madness, not mercury."
The modern cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in construction and underlying design since the Stetson creation. The cowboy hat quickly developed the capability, even in the early years, to identify its wearer as someone associated with the West. "Within a decade the name "John B. Stetson" became synonymous with the word "hat" in every corner and culture west of the Mississippi River." The shape of the hat's crown and brim were often modified by the wearer for fashion and to protect against weather by being softened in hot steam, shaped, and allowed to dry and cool. Felt tends to stay in the shape that it dries. Because of the ease of personalization, it was often possible to tell where a cowboy hat was from, right down to which ranch, simply by looking at the crease in the crown.
Later as the mystique of the "Wild West" was popularized by entertainers such as Buffalo Bill Cody and western movies starring actors such as Tom Mix, the Cowboy hat came to symbolize the American West. John Wayne christened them "the hat that won the West". The Boss of the Plains design influenced various wide-brimmed hats worn by farmers and ranchers all over the United States. Later designs were customized for law enforcement, military and motion pictures.
The first American law-enforcement agency to adopt Stetson's western hat as part of their uniform was the Texas Rangers. A Stetson-based design is also part of the ceremonial uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B Johnson wore cowboy hats manufactured by Stetson.
Creases in cowboy hats are used to give hats individual character and to help users identify with a particular subculture. Creases and dents make it easier to don or remove the hat by grasping it by the crown rather than the brim. A very popular crease used on modern cowboy hats is the Cattlemen. It is creased straight down the center of the crown with a dent on each side. Returning in popularity is the Carlsbad crease, now often called a "Gus crease" after the character Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. It maintains a high crown at the back, with the crease sloping steeply toward the front. The rodeo crease, the bullrider's crease (formerly called the RCA crease, for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), the quarter horse crease, and the "tycoon", with a pinched front, are also seen today.
Some cowboy hats have been called "ten-gallon" hats. The term came into use about 1925. There are multiple theories for how the concept arose.
One theory is that the term "ten-gallon" is a corruption of the Spanish modifier tan galán, which loosely translates as "really handsome" or "so fine". For example, "un sombrero tan galán" translates as "such a fine hat".
Another theory is that the term "ten-gallon" is a corruption of the Spanish term galón, which means "galloon", a type of narrow braided trim around the crown, possibly a style adapted by Spanish cowboys. When Texas cowboys misunderstood the word galón for "gallon", the popular, though incorrect, legend may have been born. According to Reynolds and Rand, "The term ten-gallon did not originally refer to the holding capacity of the hat, but to the width of a Mexican sombrero hatband, and is more closely related to this unit of measurement by the Spanish than to the water-holding capacity of a Stetson."
The Stetson hat company boasted that the tight weave of most Stetsons hats made them sufficiently waterproof to be used as a bucket. Early print advertising by Stetson showed a cowboy giving his horse a drink of water from a hat. The Stetson company notes that a "ten-gallon" hat holds only 3 quarts (about 3 L instead of 38 liters).
Using a hat as a water container is apt to seriously damage a modern hat. On one hand, fur felt hats were designed in part so they could be used in the rain. However, wool felt hats were designed for dry climates, and most straw hats can only handle a light rain for a brief time. While a very high quality felt hat made from animal fur may hold water, over time, any cloth container will leak. Furthermore, modern hats may react to getting wet differently, though this depends on the quality of the materials used in construction. They are generally likely to lose shape, and the felt may also soften up if they are completely drenched.
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