Hats Off to John B. Stetson

A sickly young man from New Jersey fundamentally changed the image of the American cowboy forever.

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 a trick question. It’s not a matter of who, but what.

The “Boss of the Plains” was none other than a hat—a durable, weather-resistant and waterproof head topper invented in 1865 by John Batterson Stetson. We know it today as the iconic and quintessentially 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 Story of Stetson

Years before Horace Greeley popularized the phrase, “Go west, young man,” that’s exactly what Stetson did.

The story of the Boss contains all the elements of a great Western. Hollywood, drop the guns and pick up a Stetson. Here’s your chance to make a movie for the whole family: Eastern city-slicker goes West, overcomes a handicap, becomes an inventor, solves a problem, moves back East, makes millions of customers happy, and leaves a legacy inseparable from the history of half the country.

The son of a hatter (a maker of hats, for those of us too young to have ever seen one), John Stetson was a sickly child as he grew up in Orange, New Jersey, in the 1830s and 40s. Years before Horace Greeley popularized the phrase, “Go west, young man,” that’s exactly what Stetson did. He went to ameliorate his tuberculosis and in the belief that he probably didn’t have long to live in any event.

In his twenties and thirties, the kid from Jersey was awed by cattle drivers and rustlers, horse-savvy cowboys and 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 not 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.

So drawing on what he learned in his father’s hat shop and on his own insights, Stetson set about to fix the problem. He designed a hat for himself that was perfect for the West—“big and picturesque” because of its wide brim and high crown.

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.

“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 his entrepreneurial light flashed green. 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. It’s not far-fetched to think that the mental focus and physical demands of building a business prolonged his life by years, if not decades. Honest labor and good living are known to do that, you know.

A Huge Success

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, but in no time at all the hat became the most popular headgear from St. Louis to San Francisco. Stetson cut the price and improved the quality. Even some Easterners swallowed their regional pride and donned the increasingly fashionable Stetson. TrueCowboy.com says,

The hats were a big hit in the thinly populated West, where taking a beating was a requirement for clothes (and for people). The Stetson was heavy enough to knock a man down in a fight. In a celebrated incident, a Stetson kept its shape after being hit by 20 bullets. The rugged individualism of the West was perfectly represented by a hat that could be shaped differently by each wearer—a punched-in crown, a bended brim, a braided leather band were all different ways for to make a Stetson one’s own.

Big-city Easterners scoffed at these hats at first, unaware of their practicality. But Stetson didn’t give up. He knew that as sales grew, word would circulate about his product. He was right. Variations of the hat eventually appealed to city slickers and to cowboys alike. It was a hat for all seasons; it catered to whatever position in life you had—whether you were rich or poor, whether it was dress, work or play.

By 1886, Stetson owned the world’s biggest hat factory in Philadelphia and employed nearly 4,000 workers. The factory was putting out about 2 million hats a year by 1906. John B. transformed hat-making from a manual to a mechanized industry. He introduced iron cutting and shaping machines, improving quality control."

By 1915, almost a decade after Stetson died, the company employed 5,400 people in Philadelphia and turned out 3.3 million hats a year, reports author Michael Mink. His workers were among the happiest and most highly-paid in the city, holding jobs thousands of others eagerly sought.

He built rescue missions, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, grammar schools, and even universities.

John Stetson earned a fortune, and who could blame him for it? He baked the proverbial bigger pie by inventing, producing, and marketing a bigger and better hat. Though this one-percenter would have hurt no one if he had just kept his earnings for himself, the fact is that he gave almost everything away. He built rescue missions, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, grammar schools, and even universities. One of his great beneficiaries is his namesake university, Stetson University in central Florida.

My hat is off to John B. Stetson—an American original. Every cowboy-at-heart should remember his name.

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