Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Saturday, December 26, 2015

John B. Stetson -- "Father Of The Cowboy Hat"

Since 2015 is the 150th Anniversary of the John B. Stetson Hat Company, we should all take a moment to recognize the creator of the cowboy hat, John Batterson Stetson.

Friends, while James Lock & Company of London is credited with the introduction of the Bowler hat in 1849, and Giuseppe Borsalino is credited with the Fedora in the early 1860s, there is no question that John B. Stetson is deserving of being called "The Father of the Cowboy Hat."

Yes, he is credited with inventing the classic cowboy hat. And because of his hats, I don't think there is a cowboy alive today who hasn't heard of Stetson.

And just to be fair, while there are other brands of hats, no other name brand carries with it such historical identification to America and the Old West as Stetson. Yes, and it's all due to the resilience of one man.

The man who became a legend was born John Batterson Stetson on May 5th, 1830, the 7th of 12 children, in New Jersey. Yes, the man who is responsible for inventing the "cowboy hat" was an Easterner. And shocking as that sounds, it's true.

Hats, and hatters, hat makers, were in the Stetson family as his father, Stephen Stetson, was a "hatter." Subsequently as a youth, young John Stetson learned hat making by working with his dad.

He did so up until his father's death, then John B. Stetson worked for his older brothers. As for that, well it's said that while he bought the raw materials, made hats, taught others the trade, and sold hats, his brothers took the profits. And yes, it was no surprise that after a while of this, John Stetson decided to go into the business for himself.

It was while he was just completing arrangements for opening his own hat business that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), what was called at the time "consumption" because it slowly consumed the afflicted patient enduring the hardship of the disease. Yes, for Old West fans, I suppose the most famous person to ever be afflicted with TB was the gambler John Henry "Doc" Holliday.

Since Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a doctor predicted he had only a short time to live, TB was a death sentence at the time, Stetson decided that his only chance for survival was to get away from the industrial East and head for the open spaces and clean air of the West.

During his travels, it is said that he met cattle drovers, bull-whackers, settlers, and of course day wage cowboys, all very hardy men and boys who worked in the heat of the day and snows of winter, weathering all seasons.

And frankly, while it might still baffle some how places Kansas and Missouri in the East can be referred to as the West, soon Stetson found himself in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he got a job making bricks.

It is said that even with fragile health that he was a hard worker. And through his hard work, he soon became manager and then a partner in the brickyard. But as in life, even when everything looks great, disaster can strike.

In his case, one day the Missouri River flooded and everything at the brickyard was lost. Yes, 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 disability of TB mean that he was rejected by the Union Army.

At the time, St. Joseph, Missouri, was a trading post where parties were outfitted for the long trek to Pike's Peak to the gold prospects in the Rocky Mountains. One of these parties actually invited Stetson to join them on their journey. And yes, it is said that with high hopes, he accepted the invitation.

OK, so as with most stories of great men and women, there are those moments that occur to enlighten them as to what they should be doing in life. The trek up Pike's Peak was his.

Friends, remember, he has TB and subsequently his lungs are in a horrid condition. But in late spring, 1862, with the weather mild enough for sleeping under the stars, John B. Stetson took the challenge of heading for the gold fields.

Occasionally a storm came up, and 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. Afterwards the ruined skins had to be discarded.

There in the Rocky Mountains, each storm meant new work and lost hides for the gold seekers. The story goes that once as they were bedding down, one of the men remarked, "Too bad there isn't some easier way to make tent cloth."

And yes, supposedly Stetson replied, "There is 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 fur's scales interlock. If the mat is alternately dipped in hot water and then squeezed, the scales lock even more tightly together. The material that is formed is "felt."

Story has it that rather than trying and explain the concept of felting to his companions, John B. Stetson gave them a demonstration on the spot. He did so by taking his axe and sharpening it to a razor's edge before shaving fur off several hides.

After gathering the fur, 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. Once it was ready, he then sprayed water over the fur. In a few minutes he had a mat that could be lifted. Stetson then dipped the mat in boiling water. As it began to shrink, he squeezed out any 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.

After reaching Pike's Peak, Stetson discovered that mining was very hard work and that only a few of miners were actually making any money. But even though that was the case, as with other die-hards who don't know the meaning of giving up, he decided to linger and keep trying his luck.

While at the camp, he soon discovered that his felt hat had become the talk of the mining camps. And then, one day out of the clear blue sky, it is said that a rough-looking horseman appeared and wanted to try it on. Stetson handed over the hat and the horseman placed it on his head.

Stetson is said to have watched the giant of a man, sitting in a silver-ornate-saddle on a spirited horse, and noticed that he liked Stetson hat. In fact, legend says that the horseman liked it so much that he gave Stetson a five-dollar gold piece for that hat.

He knew that the common hats of the day, the flea-infested coonskin caps, the sea captain hats, straw hats, and wool derbies, were all left-overs from other occupations. Stetson looked at this and knew that fur-felt would work for a lightweight, all-weather, hat suitable for the West.

In 1865, yes the last year of the Civil War, John B. Stetson returned East to Philadelphia. There with $100, John B. Stetson rented a small room, bought tools he needed, and then set out to make a hat that no one had ever seen before. Yes, it was there that he bought $10 worth of fur and the John B. Stetson Hat Company was born.

Stetson’s first output was simply a copy of the style then in vogue in Philadelphia. He put those out while experimenting with other hat designs. But sadly, there were only limited sales and time was running out for his fledgling hat company.

To survive was one thing, but to prevail he know that if he were to avoid disaster that 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?"

And yes, it was then that Stetson decided to not to make copies of fashionable hats for Eastern "dudes" -- but instead make hats for hardy Westerners.

He knew that it had to be durable, waterproof, and have a style all its own. Durability alone meant he did in fact do what he set out to do -- manufacture hats suited to the needs of the Westerner. Not Easterners, not citified folks, but a hat for the rugged individualist, those pioneers and settlers, and yes cowboys out West.

Thinking about out that horseman and how he placed his on his head, Stetson knew that the cattle business was a new enterprise in the 1860s and that cattlemen needed hats that distinguished them as cattlemen. Because he saw that the hats they worn were from every walk of life, he saw the cattleman as an untouched market waiting for a hat that would address their unique trade and would give them their own identity.

As with the greatness of America, knowing that nothing worth achieving comes easy, he kept at it until after a year of trial and error, he finally produced what would be known as a Stetson design unique among other designs. It was a design that would make the term "Stetson" interchangeable with what later became known as the "cowboy hat."

In fact, it is said that one day John B. Stetson went out wearing a hat made from the finest fur he could obtain. He named the hat "Boss of the Plains." The hat achieved instant popularity and was the first real cowboy hat.

Yes, with that first very soft felt hat, the name Stetson was on its way to becoming the mark of quality, durability, innovation and beauty. And yes, with his selection of that name "Boss of the Plains," Stetson showed his understanding of the wearer's desire to make his hat a symbol of authority and style.

While some have this belief that the "Boss of the Plains" only came in black, the original designs was a big natural-colored hat with a four-inch brim and a four-inch crown. It came with a plain strap that was used for the hatband.

The hat included a sweatband, a lining to protect the hat, and, as a memorial to earlier designs, a bow on its sweatband, which had the practical purpose of helping distinguish the front from the back. All features still used today. And yes, a high quality hat in good condition was also viewed in some places as a status symbol.

To answer the question as to the reason why a "cowboy hat" is commonly called "Stetson" is because he had his name John B. Stetson Company embossed in gold in every sweatband.

The "Stetson" soon became the most well known hat in the West. In fact, after the introduction of Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" hat, all the high-crowned, wide-brimmed, soft felt western hats that followed were associated with the cowboy image created by Stetson.

The "Boss of the Plains" hat was designed with a high crown to provide insulation on the top of the head, and a wide stiff brim to provide shelter from both sun and rain for the face, neck and shoulders. The original fur-felt hat was waterproof and shed rain. Overall, the hat was as tough as nails and lightweight.

Because the wide brim would protect those outdoors from the hot sun and winter rain, there were those who saw the "Boss of the Plains" as a modified version of a Mexican sombrero. But all in all, the new hat was designed with durable and style in mind.

So what about using beaver you ask? Well, it is said that Stetson worried about the waterproofing his hats for a year until he finally decided to make his hat of beaver felt.

It took about 42 beaver belly pelts to produce a high quality hat. And yes, as with the legend of a Stetson being used a bucket to fetch water for your horse, because of the tight weave of most Stetson hats -- yes, it really was waterproof enough to be used as a bucket.

In the early advertising, Stetson featured of a cowboy watering his horse with water carried in the crown. The wearer could also use the brim as a cup to direct water to a person's mouth.

Of course there is an old story about a cowboy crossing a long dry stretch of prairie. The story goes that since his canteen sprung a leak, he is said to have saved his drinking water by carrying it in his Stetson.

It quickly caught on with cattlemen as 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. And yes, being a good businessman, Stetson made a Western hat for each hat dealer in the "Boss of the Plains" style he had invented during the trek to Pike's Peak.

This was considered a calculated risk because Stetson knew his new hat would either make or break him. His gamble forced him to go into debt to obtain raw materials, but within weeks orders started pouring in. Business was a boom and some dealers even sent cash with their orders in the hopes of getting preferential treatment and expedited orders.

Before long, a big "Stetson" hat became the most distinguishing feature of a cowboy’s outfit almost as identifiable as the type of saddle he used. And yes, like a good saddle, the new hat was a tool for cowboys. The broad brim shielded a working cowboy from blistering sun and driving rain, but also by waving it above his head -- a cowboy could use it to turn cattle during a roundup or even a 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. He would do as many would and cup the brim to use it as his own drinking vessel.

The hat started out at $4.50, but soon was $10 to $20 or more, which really was a considerable amount of money at the time -- especially when considering the day wage was usually one dollar in the late 1800s.

But all in all, since a Stetson was practically a lifetime investment because it would last almost forever, it was seen as a great buy.

I've read somewhere that supposed "a Stetson with a bullet hole in it has always been a prized possession with cowboys."

But frankly, after reading that -- I laughed. And yes, the last thing I want is someone putting a hole through one of my hats. I would not be happy at all!

By the late 1800s, the Stetson became the best-known hat West of the Mississippi River. Wealthy ranchers wore them, but so did others including the ranch-hand out painting some barn, cowboys moving cattle, teamsters pulling their wagons into town, surveyors charting new towns, engineers and builders of bridges, the lone prospector looking for gold in some cold river. Yes, just about anyone who worked outside.

Of course that included lawmen, the U.S. Marshals, County Sheriffs and their Deputies, from small town City Marshals to big outfits like the Texas Rangers, they all adopted the Stetson.

Before the invention of the cowboy hat, which really means before John B. Stetson came along, cowboys and men of the plains wore castoffs of previous lives and vocations. So thanks to the time that he had spent with cowboys and settlers out West, Stetson knew firsthand that the hats they wore were extremely impractical. He knew that something else was needed.

The straight-sided, round cornered, flat brimmed original "Boss of the Plains" design dominated for about twenty years. Most 19th-century photographs show that the hat doesn't have an intentional crease at all. Most hats were kept open crown.

But, fact is, through use, abuse, and customization by individual wearers, hats were modified from their original appearance. In particular, the crown would become dented, at first inadvertently, then by deliberate choice of individual owners.

Over time the manufactured styles also began to change. The first popular modification was a long crease sloping from the high back down towards the front, called the "Carlsbad crease" after a style used by wearers in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Another design became known as the "Montana peak," which had four dents, originally derived from being handled on top with four fingers.

The brim was often rolled or curved and ornamentation of sorts were sometimes added. Often, these creases and brim shapes began to reflect where a particular hat owner lived or worked, and in some cases, even cowboys on individual ranches could be identified by the crease in their hat.

Yes, as with the tack that a cowboy used, type of saddle, bit, reins, stirrups, and even spurs one wore, all telling volumes about you and where you're from and who've you worked for. And while it is true that most Stetsons were kept open crown, they could be ordered with creases. 

For example, while the overwhelming majority of hats were first shipped as open crowns and it was the hat shops that created the creases and bend designs in them. the original five creases by Stetson became known as the original five "Stetson" creases:


1) The Montana Crease: Back when people traveled less from place to place, regions of the country developed a hat crease unique to their own local land , much like an accent. The Montana Crease or Montana Slope, known today as "The Gus", was created on a Montana ranch and adopted by other Montana cowboys.

2) The Cattleman Crease: The hat crease most people identify today is the Cattleman. It was originally worn by cattle ranchers and buyers in the 1880s. It meant you ran a ranch and probably had a lot of money. That fact is likely why fine Cattleman hats today are like a status symbol. The Cattleman compliments a wider face and squarer jaw and is the crease that was worn mostly by men. Today that has changed as now cowgirls also like to wear a Cattleman crease. 

3) The Pinch Front Crease: Over the years, women lean toward a Pinch Front Crease as it accentuates the narrower jaw line and can make the face look thinner. However, it's important to note that today, both pinch front creases and Cattleman Creases are worn by both men and women.

4) The Telescope Crease: The Telescope crease came from the "Charros" (Mexican cowboys) who came to Nevada from Mexico and South America for work. The low crown covers your head but stops hot air from accumulating and its wide brim provides even more sun protection. The Telescope Crease is often known today as "The Gambler's" hat.

5) The Tom Mix Crease: Hollywood has helped dictate the popularity of some styles, like "The Gus" which was originally called "the Montana Crease". It was made famous by Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove. Fame can even earn a custom crease style named after you. Such is the case with Tom Mix. Tom Mix was one of the first movie cowboy stars in America and often carried with him a half a dozen or a dozen Stetson Hats which he was known to gave away to important people as he traveled around the world. Imagine that. 

They say the greatness of someone is not only measured in what one creates, but by what one does with his creations. In the case of John B. Stetson, while Stetson profited from his business, he also wanted to give back to his community and did in huge ways. In fact, toward the end of his life, John Stetson began donating a great deal of his money to charitable organizations.

He built grammar and high schools and helped build colleges, including Temple and Stetson Universities. He also helped establish the YMCA in Philadelphia. Stetson donated generously to DeLand University in DeLand, Florida, which was renamed in 1889 to John B. Stetson University. In 1900, Stetson created the first law school in Florida, Stetson University Law School.

John Stetson co-founded Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, in 1878. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has since expanded to provide more services and is still in use for the homeless population of Philadelphia.

Under Stetson's direction, The John B. Stetson Company became one of the largest hat firms in the world. Stetson hats won numerous awards, but his company grew, he "faced the challenge of developing a reliable labor force."

Reportedly, at the time it was said that people working in the hat trade at that time tended to drift from employer to employer and absenteeism was rampant.

Stetson, who was "guided by Christian principles," believed that by providing for his employees he would lend stability to their lives and attract higher caliber craftsmen and women.

Unlike most other employers at the time, Stetson decided to offer benefits to entice workers to stay. Stetson also made sure his employees had a clean, safe place to work, while also building a hospital, a park and houses for his 5,000 employees. Stetson's unusual moves helped him build a factory in Philadelphia that grew to 25 buildings on 9 acres.

Some in the Labor Union movement tried to criticize John Stetson's employee policies. Yes, believe it or not, the caring that John Stetson had shown for his employees was demonized by the Labor Unions as "paternalism" which they said was akin to slavery.

Fact is, John Stetson's care for his employees was ages ahead of his day. The safety and cleanliness, the health benefits and the housing allowances, were all years ahead of other employers in the manufacturing industry of the Industrial Age. His feelings of taking providing for his employees came out of Christian kindness and a sense of family.

John Stetson owned a mansion in DeLand, Florida, where he died in 1906. The over 8,000 square ft masterpiece called John B. Stetson House is a mixture of Gothic, Tudor, and Moorish styles.

Stetson is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. And yes, when John B. Stetson died in 1906, his company was making two million hats a year. He left an estate worth seven million dollars. By 1915, nine years after Stetson's death, there were 5,400 employees turning out 3.3 million hats.

While he might not know it at the time, his company's hats would one day be synonymous with the term "cowboy hat" most now commonly refer to simply as Stetsons.

John B. Stetson led the hat industry his entire career by designing new hat styles for fashion and function. When it came to quality, it was his creed and for the past 150 years that it has so stamped the product that the name and the word are synonymous.

Today the Stetson hat factory in Garland, Texas, is one of the largest in the country and produces a line of hats in hundreds of different styles and colors. In spite of its size, nothing has been sacrificed as classic styling and premium quality remain as the driving forces behind each and every hat.

As a result, Stetson hats are the most well known hats in the world. Wherever and whenever hats are discussed Stetson will be mentioned. Stetson is the standard in cowboy hats. And yes, the spirit of the West lives in each as an icon of America. Because of its authentic American heritage, Stetson is a big part of American History.

Yes, John Wayne advertised Stetson
The Stetson cowboy hat was the symbol of the highest quality. Western showmen such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Pawnee Bill, and the famous Annie Oakley all wore Stetsons. And as for Hollywood, yes indeed, most all silver-screen cowboys including Hopalong Cassidy, John Wayne, and Robert Duvall have all worn Stetsons.

Stetson has also made hats for law enforcement departments, such as the Texas Rangers. Stetson's Western-style hats have been worn by employees of the National Park Service, U.S. Cavalry soldiers,  our armed forces. and many U.S. Presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

The "cowboy hat" is truly an example of form following function. Invented by John B. Stetson, today's cowboy hats have remained basically unchanged in construction and design since the first one was created in 1865. In addition to the cowboy hats, Stetson has also made fedoras, derbies, and women's hats, but it is the cowboy hat that Stetson will always be famous for creating.

John B. Stetson experienced trying times in his life, but through it all he relied on the one thing that he did exceptionally well. He was a hat maker. Remember, he was trained by his father, who was a master hatter, and he applied the skills and knowledge he learned from his father to a trade that was really not held in high very regard at the time. It's true, the reason is that back in those days "hatters" had a reputation of being unreliable, lazy, free spirit types who only wanted to make money to have fun.

John B. Stetson changed all that when he built one of America's most well-known and successful businesses. A business which has longevity and history based on innovation and quality. A business that today sells a lot more than just hats.

This article has been compiled from many sources with the hopes of telling you about a man who did not quit, found a way to make his live and others better and did so.  John B. Stetson was an American who typifies the "Can Do" spirit of America . He is someone who should truly be admired as we can all learn a great deal from him.

Let's not forget that he himself was given the death sentence of TB in a time when TB killed millions. He was a hard worker who did not come from money. He strove to produce just the right product, and did just that. He was a creative genius but also smart in business. Because of his Christian ideals, he gave back a great deal to his community and our nation -- all while making the lives of his employees better and safer. Friends, that is someone to be admired.

Yes, I truly admire John B. Stetson.
Tom Correa 


2 comments:

  1. It is not surprising that Stetson was an "Easterner," as many of the famous names connected to the Old West were from the East. John Butterfield, of the Overland Mail Company the world's longest stage line, was from New York. Many of his employees were from Upstate New York including most of the stagecoach drivers. John appointed Marquis L. Kenyon of Rome, New York, to select the route and the station sites. At that time most of the experienced stage men in the country were from the East--and John Butterfield was the king of them all. Even Wells and Fargo got their start in Upstate New York.

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    1. I agree 100%! But since many of my readers had written to ask what part of Texas he was from, I have found that a number of folks find it a surprise that John B was an "Easterner" and not from Texas or somewhere else out West. Thanks for visiting my site. It's much appreciated. Tom

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