Stetson was the twelfth of thirteen children. His father was a feltmaker, and young John learnt the rudiments of the trade….which were to be so vital to his later success. Having suffered from a bout of tuberculosis, he was advised the classic ‘go West young man’, for the sake of his health…so he did, and in 1859 joined the Gold Rush, and went to Colorado. It is estimated that around a hundred thousand others did the same thing; all hoping to make themselves a fortune.
The climate there was described as ‘rugged’, and young John decided he neded a hat. Using locally available beaver fur, he made a thick piece of felt,which he then formed into a hat with a six inch high crown and a seven inch wide brim. The height made it cool in summer and warm in winter, while the large brim kept the sun out of his eyes, and stopped the rain going down his neck. In addition, it was waterproof, and could be used as a bucket ! Possibly this was the origin of the term ‘ten-gallon-hat’.
The picture above shows an old example,which has an extremely small crown and very wide brim. It was found at an antique fair in 1989, and was in a box of junk under a table; not even on display. It cost ten pounds; quite a lot in those days. The crown is very tall for its size, and has been worn folded into the ‘pork-pie’ shape , similar to one of the trilbies shown earlier. This one has a knotted twisted cotton cord.
Above is a light brown Stetson with a much wider crown. This has been deeply creased from front to back, and shows just a hint of the ‘pinch’ at the top, which is often a feature of the way the hat is worn .
The next example shows it to a much greater degree, and is actually a really colossal hat! Those of you who remember the U.S. series ‘Dallas’, and ‘Dynasty’ will remember hats like this; in particular one worn by the J.R.Ewing character. This one truly is a ‘ten-gallon-hat’. The felt is extremely waterproof, and the cowboy’s hat could be used as a bucket to water the horses .
(You can tell how enormous it is, because it swamps the model, and this one, known as Graham has a really large head.)
Last in this series, but by no means the last of ones on the collection, is the classic bad man’s hat….always black, you could identify him instantly in any film !
All of the hats shown here were made by the J.B. Stetson Company, though we have a goodly number of similar style but by other manufacturers. American State Troopers wear the style as part of their uniform, usually in shades of blue and grey, and lightweight fine straw ones are also commonly seen. No rodeo would be the same without them.
J.B. Stetson hats are still manufactured today, using the original name under licence, together with an ever widening range of products, including women’s hats, introduced in the 1940’s. During WW2, they turned over production to heavy webbing, safety belts and parachutes. In 1955 they created a special all-beaver felt hat which took 43 workers a year to make ! It was decorated with a solid gold longhorn steer’s head and a sterling silver band. This hat toured the world, promoting the brand . In 1961, John F. Kennedy appeared at his inauguration without a hat . Suddenly it was permissible to appear bareheaded, and hat manufacturers suffered huge losses. All manner of new ideas were tried…coloured hatbands, and feathers for example. But to no avail; Stetson closed its last factory in the 1980’s and now works with licenced partners. Over the years, addititions have been made to the Stetson merchandise: women’s wear, menswear; shoes, fragrances and luggage . In 2010, a small fashion hat collection was launched, with sights set on belts, wallets and home textiles.
Stetson’s original hat was coveted by other adventurers, and he eventually sold it to someone for a five dollar gold piece, and realised he was on a winner. By this time, the Civil War was ending, and the golden age of the cowboy had begun. In 1865, he went back east, and with $100, rented premises in Philadelphia, bought hatmaking equipment and a supply of fur, and began making the hat which was to become known as the ‘Boss of the Plains’, and eventually…the STETSON. ( Famous names seen wearing the Stetson include Buffalo Bill (William F Cody); Calamity Jane, Tom Mix…Hollywood’s first cowboy superstar, and of course, John Wayne.)
Within twenty years he had the world’s biggest hat factory, covering twenty acres and employing some four thousand people. His staff were well paid, safety records were good, and they produced some two million hats a year.
JB died in 1906 and the company was taken over by G. Henry Stetson, continuing in the same premises until 1970.