The Stetson Hat: Boss of the Plain
by Joe Zentner
There are thousands of cattle brands, many of them famous in the history of the American livestock industry. There are many kinds of distinctive western saddles, some, for instance, designed for riding broncos and others, for working cows. There are a lot of different kinds of cowboy boots, some, for example, designed with pointed toes and high heels to fit a stirrup, and others, with rounded toes and flat heels to facilitate a calf roper’s footwork. None of those artifacts, however, has equaled the ten-gallon Stetson hat as a universal symbol of the cattlemen and cowpunchers of the Wild West.
During presidential primary contests, when candidates head west to campaign for votes, what do many of them don for the benefit of prospective voters and television cameras? A Stetson hat, of course.
Probably, no single other commercial product has had a more defining effect on the image of the Westerner. And no other specific trade name, with the possible exception of Colt, manufacturer of the six-shooter, has held a stronger identity in the literature of the region.
For a century, Western literature has abounded with references to Stetson hats. Jack London, Harold Bell Wright, Courtney Riley Cooper and Ralph Cummins are some of the writers who spoke of Stetsons in novels or articles. A Western story would not be complete, or even plausible, without mention of a Stetson hat every so often.
The man behind the legend, John Batterson Stetson, was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1830. He learned hat making from his father, Stephen Stetson. The elder Stetson had mastered the trade in the early 1800s.
At that time, the term “mad hatter,” which was to be made famous by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), was no idle phrase. Some have suggested that this was because the old-time hatter, like many tradesmen of the period, worked on a transient basis. The lack of financial security gave many hatters a feeling of despair, which was punctuated intermittently by feelings of exuberance when there was work to be done; hence the term “mad hatter.” (Actually, the term originally referred to the behavior of hat makers who had suffered from brain damage after they inhaled the vapors of a mercury compound used in their manufacturing processes.)
After his father’s death, John B. Stetson worked for his older brothers. He bought raw materials. He made hats. He taught others the trade. He sold hats. His brothers took the profits. So, he decided to go into the business for himself. He just completed arrangements for opening when he was stricken with tuberculosis. He decided that his only chance for survival was to quit hat making and get out into the open.
He moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, where he got a job molding bricks. Even with fragile health, he was a hard worker. He soon became manager and then a partner in the brickyard. One day, however, the Missouri River flooded everything. A half-million bricks, ready to be baked, melted into silt under the river’s advance and floated downstream, carrying Stetson’s job with them.
After that disaster, Stetson looked around for something new to do. The Civil War was being fought, and he tried to enlist, but his physical disabilities caused him to be rejected.
At the time, St. Joseph was a trading post where parties of men were outfitting for the long trek to Pike’s Peak and Rocky Mountain gold prospects. One such party invited Stetson to join it. With high hopes, he accepted the invitation, setting out on foot for the Rocky Mountains.
It was early summer, 1862, and the weather was usually mild enough for sleeping under the stars. Occasionally, however, a storm came up. When that happened, the 12 members of the party rushed to lash animal skins together to serve as tents to shelter them from the weather. Since the skins were not tanned, they ruined under the soaking. They had to be discarded. Each storm meant new work and lost hides for the gold seekers. Once, as they were bedding down, one of the men remarked: “Too bad there isn’t some easier way to make tent cloth.”
“There is,” Stetson commented, “by felting.”
Felting is a process that dates back centuries before Christ. Although a strand of animal fur appears smooth to the naked eye, it is actually covered with scales. When clean fur is matted together, the scales interlock. If the mat is alternately dipped in hot water and then squeezed, the scales lock even more tightly together, forming the material called “felt.”
Rather than try and explain the concept of felting to his companions, Stetson gave a demonstration. He sharpened his axe to a razor’s edge. He shaved the fur off several hides. With a hickory sapling and a leather thong, he made a bow and began agitating the fur, keeping it in the air until the long hairs and dirt were separated. Then he sprayed water over the fur. In a few minutes he had a mat that could be lifted. Stetson dipped this in boiling water. As it began to shrink, he manipulated it, squeezing out excess water until he had a soft blanket of felt. Stetson then fashioned the limited supply of fur, not into a tent, but into a big hat, one that would protect a wearer from rain, sun, cold, wind and even hail. His compatriots were impressed.
After reaching Pike’s Peak, Stetson discovered that mining was very hard work and that only a few of operators were making any money. Nonetheless, he decided to hang around. He discovered that his felt hat had become the talk of the mining camps. One day, a rough-looking but handsome horseman appeared. He saw the hat and asked to try it on. Stetson handed over the hat. The horseman placed it on his head.
The ex-hatter surveyed the picture. Here was a giant of a man, sitting in a silver-ornamented saddle on a spirited horse. Stetson liked the effect. The horseman did too. He gave Stetson a five-dollar gold piece for the hat.
Stetson decided he would return to the East and the hat business. Reaching Philadelphia with 100 dollars in his pocket, he bought the tools of his trade, rented a small room, and began, once more, to make hats.
Stetson’s first output was simply a copy of the style then in vogue in Philadelphia. It had only a limited sale. He realized that if he were to avoid disaster, he would have to make a hat different from those being worn in fashionable East Coast circles. However, dealer resistance to anything new was strong. Slowly going broke, Stetson asked himself the question that would turn his life around: “Why not sell hats somewhere else?”
The hatted horseman whom he had met out West kept reappearing in Stetson’s mind. He mentally examined the horseman, from stirrups to the big hat. For months, Stetson thought about the hatted horseman. Then, one night, it came to him: the man on horseback looked like a cattle baron.
Stetson knew that the cattle business was a new enterprise. He knew, too, that cattlemen didn’t wear hats, at least, any distinguishing kind of hat. They were from every walk of life. There were no born cattlemen; the industry wasn’t old enough. Thus, cattle barons might be receptive to something new, something that would give them their own identity.
One day, Stetson went out wearing a hat made of very soft felt. It was from the finest fur he could obtain. He named the hat “Boss of the Plains.”
By his selection of that name, Stetson showed his understanding of the wearer’s desire to make his hat a symbol of authority and elegance. The “Boss of the Plains” was a big, natural-colored hat, with four-inch brim and four-inch crown, and a strap for a hatband. Designed for a new class – the cattle kings of the West – the hat was essentially a modified Mexican sombrero. It quickly caught on with cattlemen; they needed in a hat those very things Stetson recognized when he made the original Stetson hat to cope with the rugged Colorado weather.
Stetson soon decided to mass market the “Boss of the Plains,” which later became known simply as the B.O.P. Obtaining a list of every hat dealer in the Southwest, he sent each one a sample hat, along with a letter asking for an order. This was a calculated risk that Stetson knew would either make or break him. It forced him to go into debt to obtain raw materials, but within two weeks, orders started pouring in. Some dealers sent cash with their orders, hoping to obtain preferential treatment and expedited orders.
Before long, a big Stetson hat became the most distinguishing feature of a cowboy’s outfit. Moreover, it was an excellent utility piece. The broad brim shielded a working cowboy from blistering sun and driving rain. Waving it above his head, he used it to turn cattle during a roundup or stampede. In case of emergency, he could carry oats in the crown for his horse. Many a cowboy climbed into almost inaccessible places, dipped up water in his hat, and carried it out to his horse; or he cupped the brim and used it as his own drinking vessel. A Stetson was also handy for fanning campfires into life.
The hat cost $10 to $20 or more, a considerable sum of money at the time. But a Stetson was practically a lifetime investment. It would last almost forever. A Stetson with a bullet hole in it has always been a prized possession with Westerners, and there’s a time-honored expression: “You can put a dozen bullet holes in a Stetson and it won’t travel.”
In time, the Stetson became the best-known hat west of the Mississippi River. Wealthy ranchers wore them. So did storekeepers, preachers and U. S. marshals. The Texas Rangers adopted the Stetson. Every cowboy performer, from Buffalo Bill to the Lone Ranger, wore a Stetson.
One of the greatest two-gun heroes ever to ride across a movie screen, Tom Mix, epitomized every boy’s dream of adventure—he was a soldier, a sheriff, a U. S. marshal and a Texas Ranger. Mix went into the movies in 1909. From then until his retirement in 1930, he wore his Stetson as he fought villains and rescued damsels in distress, to the joy of millions of fans who idolized him.
Mix’s magnificent Stetson was custom-made. Once, a factory representative delivered a new one to him. “You’re just in time,” the actor commented, “I was about to take a shower.” Without further ado, Mix unwrapped his new Stetson, placed it on his head, and stepped into the shower. When the hat was thoroughly soaked, he creased the crown, curled the brim and set it on a table to dry. “No better way to shape a new Stetson,” Mix drawled.
When John B. Stetson died in 1906, his company was making two million hats a year. He left an estate worth seven million dollars. His two playboy sons, however, were no chips off the old block. John B. Jr.’s greatest contribution to the Stetson Hat Company grew out an impulsive gesture. On a trip to Arizona in 1901, he tossed his well-worn Stetson into Fossil Creek. Some 20 years later the hat had turned into a 40-pound chunk of limestone, shaped in the easily recognizable form of a Stetson hat. New York City’s Museum of Natural History eventually added the chunk to its permanent collection.
In old Wild West movies, the good guy wore a tall, distinctive white hat – the villain’s, of course, was black – and both hats were Stetsons. The B.O.P. model, launched by John B. Stetson with a $100 investment, turned his company into a legend.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Stetson’s remarkable hat was paid by an unknown cowpuncher. According to W. C. Tuttle, a Western author, a man rode into town wearing a derby one Sunday morning. “It was a terrible faux pas,” related Tuttle. “The derby was knocked off his head and cruelly mistreated.” Later, some cowboy picked up the ruined derby and squinted at the imprint on the hatband. “My God!” he gasped. “It says Stetson. I bet it’s a counterfeit. I’d just as soon think of a bow and arrow with the name ‘Colt!’”
According to wikipedia, “Stetson eventually became the world’s largest hat maker, producing more than 3,300,000 hats a year in a factory spread over 9 acres (36,000 m2) in Philadelphia. In addition to its Western and fashion hats, Stetson also produces fragrance, apparel, footwear, eyewear, belts, bourbon, and other products evoking the historic American West.”
Joe Zentner is a retired professor and a freelance writer who writes frequently about Western-related topics.