There are very few items in North American culture that carry the same iconic weightiness as the cowboy hat. It is the singular item of apparel that can be worn in any corner of the globe, by most anyone, and receive instantaneous acknowledgment. As the old cowboy saying goes, “It’s the last thing you take off and the first thing that is noticed.” Interestingly, the history of the iconic cowboy hat is not that old. Before the invention of a cowboy’s hat by Mr. John B. Stetson, the cowpunchers of the West wore castoffs from their former vocations, which meant that everything from formal top hats and derbies to leftover Civil War headgear, to tams and sailor hats, were worn by men moving westward.
Stetson goes west
John Batterson Stetson was born in New Jersey, the eighth of 12 children. His father was a hatter and as a youth, Stetson worked with his father. When Stetson was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given only a few months to live, John left his father’s hat-making business to explore the American West before he succumbed, as he feared, to the final cruelty of “consumption” (as tuberculosis was called in his day). It was in his travels of the vast untamed open range, that he met drovers, bullwhackers and cowboys. And, as you can imagine, the former hat maker turned a critical eye to the flea-infested coonskin caps favored by many of the gold seekers and wondered whether fur-felt would work for a lightweight, all-weather hat suitable for the West. So, during a hunting trip to Pike’s Peak, Stetson amused his friends by showing them how he could make cloth out of fur without weaving. After creating his “fur blanket,” Stetson fashioned an enormous hat with a huge brim partly as a joke, but the hat was noted to be big enough to protect a man from sun, rain, and all manner of rigors the outdoors could throw at him. Stetson decided to wear the hat on the rest of his hunting trip, and it worked so well that he continued wearing it on his travels throughout the West.
Fully recuperated and having cheated death, in 1865 Stetson moved to Philadelphia to enter the hat making craft he’d learned from his father and began manufacturing hats suited to the needs of those taming the West, using his original fur blanket felt hat as the prototype. And, thanks to the time he had spent with cowboys and Western settlers, Stetson knew firsthand that the headwear they wore were impractical.
A new kind of hat is born
He decided to offer people a better hat. Something durable, yet comfortable was what he envisioned, but how would it convince others to buy his hat? Stetson made a western hat for each hat dealer in the “boss of the plains” style he had invented. These lightweight hats were natural in color with four-inch open crowns and brims, while a plain strap was used for the band. Made from naturally waterproof felt, the new hat was surprisingly durable. The new hat would protect people from the hot sun. And, the new hat was fashionable. One observer even marveled, “It kept the sun out of your eyes and off your neck. It was like an umbrella. It gave you a bucket (the crown) to water your horse and a cup (the brim) to water yourself. It made a hell of a fan, which you need sometimes for a fire but more often to shunt cows this direction or that.”
Stetson’s original hat sold for less than five dollars, and his hats quickly grew in popularity partially fueled by a time when everyone wore hats. Today’s cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in structure and design since John Stetson’s first hat was created in 1865, although quality hats cost a bit more nowadays. Shortly after the turn of the century, the cowboy hat, although still in its infancy, nevertheless infused its wearer with a singular connection to the history of the wild and woolly West. Even as the wild aspect of the West was tamed, the cowboy hat has never really lost its ability to lend that reckless and rugged aura to its wearer.
So, let’s talk about the cowboy’s hat for a few minutes. First things first, you never, ever, ever, never (never and ever) want to be caught wearing your hat backwards. So, on the inside of the hat, look for a small ribbon bow. That’s the back of the hat. Put it to the back of your head. Always. Just trust me on this one.
“It kept the sun out of your eyes and off your neck. It was like an umbrella. It gave you a bucket to water your horse and a cup to water yourself. It made a hell of a fan, which you need sometimes for a fire but more often to shunt cows this direction or that.”
Also, you may hear opinions about when to wear felt hats and when to wear straw hats. If you are a traditionalist, either wear your felt hat all year round like the original cowpuncher of the American West, or wear it from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and wear straw the rest of the year during the warmer months. But, in reality, we are fortunate to live in a free society, so do as you like based on comfort. Let common sense be your guide here.
Cowboy hat etiquette
As it relates to etiquette, there are very few rules, however those that do exist are generally held as sacrosanct by those in the cowboy class:
- The first rule is indisputable and critical, and it is simple: DO NOT, under any circumstances mess with another’s hat. Don’t ask to try it on. Don’t ask what it’s made of. And, for the love of all things good and natural, don’t grab it to brush lint or dust off of it. That coating of dust on the hat has been well-earned over many hours horseback. Just admire the blanket of range dust with a friendly smile and move on. If you touch a cowboy’s hat, it will probably get complicated! A cowboy hat is very personal, and very prized regardless of how it may look to you. The only exceptions I’m aware of here are between spouses or very good friends, and of course when it comes to grandchildren. Grandchildren can do as they please.
- Any time you enter a building, the hat should come off. If it is an informal occasion you may put it back on, but for a formal occasion it should stay off and in your hands or on a hatrack.
- Placing your hat on a bed is bad luck. We are talking really bad juju here. Don’t take this warning lightly! If you happen to forget and place it on the corner of a bed for even just a moment, the proper way to reverse any unfortunate luck that may have seeped into your hat, is to quickly throw it to the ground, forcefully but respectfully kick it across the room, confess your sin to the spirit of John Wayne, and down a shot of whiskey before putting it back on your head. Do this, and you’ll probably be alright.
- When sitting down at a table for a meal, the hat should come off unless there is nowhere to safely lay the hat. When sitting down at a counter for a meal, or out on the range however, keep your hat on while you eat. If you take your hat off on the open range, another cowboy might step on it or spill food into the rim.
- In church, hats come off. They also come off during an invocation in public, during the playing of the National Anthem, and when Old Glory passes by in a parade or a grand entry. In Texas, please also wait until the flag of the Great State of Texas has passed before putting your hat back on.
- When greeting a lady or an elderly man, remove your hat to greet them as a sign of respect or at least touch your hand to the brim of your hat. There is something particularly elegant about this cowboy greeting, which originated when men would meet, moving the hand to the hat brim signaled friendly intentions since he was moving the hand away from the holster. Tipping the cowboy hat when meeting someone depends completely upon the situation, but it does show good breeding and respect.
Now all of the above rules are frequently ignored or modified depending on the locale, the situation, the people, or just plain ignorance of the traditions of the cowboy. So use your best judgment and if in doubt, stick to the above rules to be sure you’re not offending anyone’s sensibilities. Oh, and ladies, none of the rules of hat wear apply to you with the exception of touching another’s hat. So, you may keep your hat on at all times unless, of course, it offends you to do so!
Cowboy hats are one of the few immediately recognizable symbols seen whenever we are fortunate to encounter a cowboy. At the same time, if you’ve never thrown your leg over a horse or pushed horns on the open range, you can still enjoy the feeling of connection to the American West by wearing a cowboy hat. Just remember to put the bow in the back and don’t lay it on your bed!
Until next time, happy trails! ★