(Gillette, Wyo.) In the hand of the silhouetted cowboy on the iconic Bucking Horse and Rider logo is a hat that is so well recognized, no one would mistake the image as one of a grotesquely deformed hand.
The precise origins of the cowboy hat are a bit murky, but hat lore has it that John B. Stetson of Philadelphia invented the cowboy hat on Sept. 18, 1865.
While Stetson receives a lot of credit, his contribution was less of an inventor and more of a popularizer. A similar thing can be seen with what we call the Crescent wrench, which is really just an adjustable wrench that the Crescent company made popular.
It should come as no surprise that a broad-brimmed, high-crowned hat to provide a horseback rider with insulation and shade on his head wasn’t an American invention. In fact, such headwear goes back as far as Mongolian horsemen of the 13th century.
Americans began moving west 400 years later, and they wore a number of hats during that time, including top hats and derbies. The bowler was especially popular. One well-known author called it “the hat that won the West.”
According to Hats & the Cowboys Who Wear Them by Texan Bix Bender, hats very similar to the modern cowboy hat were worn by the Mexican cattle drivers from northern Mexico, well before Stetson began mass producing his design in 1865.
Stetson called his hat The Boss of the Plains and intended it to be a durable headwear that could survive the rugged elements encountered by the men working in the cattle industry out West. Stetson originally used beaver felt to ensure the hat would be waterproof. So tight was the design, it was said the hat would hold water by which a cowboy would water his horse.
This feature is believed by some to have been part of the origins of the term “ten-gallon” hat, though it actually only held three quarts. It may also be a distortion of the Spanish word galán, which means handsome, or it may be related to the width of a Mexican hatband. No one is exactly sure.
Originally, the hats didn’t have the dent along the top or a curled brim, as most photographs from the early 1800s show. This design came about accidentally at first and then later as a matter of cowboy fashion. It’s also said the curled-up brim prevented the hat from getting caught up in a lasso.
Entertainers, such as Buffalo Bill with his Wild West Shows and Hollywood Westerns, popularized the Stetson hats. Much of the original features remain with modern cowboy hats, owing to its functionality, as practical as the cowboy.