Hats Off to John B. Stetson
"The kid from Jersey was awed by the freewheeling culture of the territories west of the Mississippi."
In the spirited history of the old American West, who was known as “the Boss of the Plains?” The Sioux chief Sitting Bull? The outlaw Billy the Kid? The trapper and frontiersman Kit Carson?
It was none of them. Nor was it any other man or woman. It’s not a matter of who, but what.
The “Boss of the Plains” was a hat—a durable, weather-resistant and waterproof head topper invented in 1865 by John Batterson Stetson. We know it today as the iconic American “Stetson,” most commonly called the “cowboy hat.” Sometimes it was also monikered the “10-Gallon Hat” because in the dry climate of the High Plains, it doubled as a water bucket (though it really held less than a gallon).
The son of a hatter, John Stetson was a sickly child as he grew up in New Jersey in the 1840s. As soon as he could, he went west to ameliorate his tuberculosis and in the belief he probably didn’t have long to live anyway.
The kid from Jersey was awed by the freewheeling culture of the territories west of the Mississippi. But one thing that failed to impress him were the hats of the day. Everybody wore one but they seemed worse than useless. The fancy-pants derby he brought with him was no fit for harsh weather. Beaver-pelt hats were infested with fleas and ticks. Coonskin caps soaked the head when it rained. Feathers were for Indians.
Drawing on what he learned in his father’s hat shop and his own insights, Stetson set about to fix the problem. He designed a hat for himself and perfect for the West, “big and picturesque” because of its wide brim and high crown.
“I’ll give you my five-dollar gold piece for that hat,” said a mule driver when he saw it. Stetson sold it to him on the spot. That was the moment he decided to go back East to Philadelphia, start the John B. Stetson Company with just a hundred dollars of capital, and mass-produce the hat. It was 1865.
The sickly kid whose doctor said he’d be lucky to make it to 25 lived to the ripe old age of 75 and his company lasted more than a century. Honest labor and good living are known to do that, you know.
The newfangled hat made the wearer look like he was in charge of something important, so Stetson labeled it the “Boss of the Plains.” The initial price was roughly a whole month’s wages for the average cowboy. In no time at all the hat became the most popular headgear from St. Louis to San Francisco. Variations of it today include those with the “Montana Crease,” which you can see at HatsUnlimited.com.
By 1915, almost a decade after Stetson died, his company employed 5,400 people in Philadelphia and turned out 3.3 million hats a year. His workers were among the happiest and most highly paid in the city, holding jobs thousands of others eagerly sought.
John Stetson earned a fortune and gave most of it away. He built rescue missions, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, grammar schools and even universities. Stetson University in central Florida is named for him.
My hat’s off to John B. Stetson. Every cowboy-at-heart should remember his name.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.