Thanks largely to Hollywood iconography, we are all familiar with the traditional image of a cowboy – jeans, boots, vest, low-slung gunboat and, of course, a ten-gallon hat. Ironically, considering their appalling relationship with Native Americans, the headgear worn by the cattlemen of the Old Wild West has become totemic. However, for those with a head for history, the origins of the much-fancied piece of millinery may boil down to a party trick and a misunderstanding…
But before we get into the frankly odd name that the practical and purposeful hat has acquired, let us look back at the times which called for the birth of this popular piece of rancher kit. But, in order to do that, we have to go back to the 19th century, and the New Frontier of the U.S. in the 1860s.
By the end of this decade, Honest Abe Lincoln had been made President – twice – the American Civil War had been fought and won, and – thanks to the Homestead Act passed in 1862 – regular Americans were pushing west, to territories beyond the Mississippi River. The laws encompassed by the act had shared out almost half a million square miles of U.S. land to ordinary folk. Amazingly, about a tenth of the country was made available free to homesteaders who wanted to work their own farms, on their own land.
However, it was not just prospective ranchers who headed west. For many settlers, the often chilly, damp conditions of the Eastern Seaboard meant misery and ill-health. For these unfortunates, the warmer, drier climes of the western half of the States – including Texas, Colorado and California – offered an alternative and attractive lifestyle. Consequently, a fair few made the move west for the perceived health benefits of warm weather.
And one of these intrepid travelers was a fresh-faced milliner’s son who was looking to make a name for himself. John Batterson Stetson was born in New Jersey in 1830, but went west after contracting tuberculosis – or T.B. – as a young man. He decided to see how prospecting in Colorado would pan out, but it was while he was on a hunting expedition there that Stetson struck sartorial gold. While out stalking some food to kill with some buddies, he just happened to make a handy hat on the fly as a way to entertain the shooting party.
Using animal pelts that the hunters had amassed already, Stetson created an impromptu fur-felt headpiece. At the time, most hats were made from leather or wool, so Stetson’s creation – lightweight, durable, weatherproof and without a lengthy and messy production process involving tanning and the like – proved to be something of a novelty.
Indeed, Stetson’s innovation was so unique, the story goes, that it attracted the attention of a passing cowboy. He rode up to the assembled hunting party, tried on the New Jersey man’s design, and was so impressed that he bought the prototype with a five-dollar gold coin. Unbeknown to that anonymous cattleman, he had just purchased the world’s first custom-made Stetson cowboy hat.
However, it was not just the simple materials or straightforward process that made the new headgear so highly unusual. The style of the millinery was markedly different as well. At the time, male settlers mainly favored the bowler or derby style of headpiece. But – while no doubt super stylish – such a squat, heavy design made out of wool would not appear to have been much of a friend to a lasso-wielding rancher.
On the other ranch hand, Stetson’s new design featured a high crown, creating a clever cavity for warm air to insulate the head in cold weather, and a broad brim to keep the sun – or rain – out of the eyes and off the neck. Meanwhile, the large but lightweight hats were nevertheless robust enough to transport an amount of water if necessary.
Inspired by his Colorado trip and the anonymous cowboy’s gold, Stetson moved back east to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1865 and began producing headwear like the example he had created on the Frontier. The milliner named his new mass-manufactured hat the “Boss of the Plains.”
So Stetson invented a larger, durable but lightweight, broad-brimmed hat, specifically for outdoor pursuits in the Old Wild Wild West. But how did the Boss of the Plains branding get usurped by the “ten-gallon” interloper? Well, believe it or not, but the answer may well come from all the way down in Mexico…
The frontier state of Texas and the country of Mexico famously share a border. Back in the 19th century, Texan and Mexican cattlemen – the latter known locally as vaqueros – would often come into contact with each other, traveling on their various cattle-driving trails that intersected the border territories.
And both sets of cowboys would have at least one thing in common – hats. But the Mexicans had a way of setting their sombreros apart. In Mexico, a “galón” is a decorative addition to an item of headwear, usually braided and wrapped around the widest point of the sombrero. Many observers have come to believe that “gallon” is actually an anglicization of the Spanish term.
Indeed, a ten galón hat was said to be a grand headpiece large enough to sport a double-digit number of these fancy bands. And it is thought by some historians that cowboys north of the border heard this Mexican term and started to use it to describe their own unique headgear. In this way, ten galón became ten gallon.
However, there is a second theory about the name’s possible provenance. And again, it would appear that 19th-century cowboys misheard or misappropriated a Spanish phrase. “Tan galán” means “really gallant” or “very handsome,” and it is possible that when English-speaking frontiersmen overheard this description, they took it the wrong way. Apparently, the modest U.S. cowboys thought the term referred to their hats, rather than the compliment that it presumably must have been.
Nevertheless, this new name for Stetson’s Wild West creation took a while to take off. Despite the term “ten-gallon” having become synonymous with cowboy’s headgear, it did not actually enter everyday language until the 1920s. This was long after the West had been tamed, but shorty after Stetson himself had passed away in 1906 at the age of 75. But the scale of the hat’s new-found fame was in no small way due to the fictional efforts of Hollywood. From the earliest days of cinema, pretend ranchers and cattlemen on celluloid carried off the largest, most outlandish Stetsons in grand style. Nonetheless, even those gargantuan lids were not able to carry ten gallons of water. Myth-busting researchers have actually put the average ten-gallon hat’s liquid limit at a much more modest three quarts of a gallon.
In fact, despite the style being favored by Wild West legends, such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and General George Custer – who is said to have worn one at the Battle of Little Bighorn – the ten-gallon was still not the topper of choice in those far off 19th-century days. That particular honor goes to the aforementioned derby.
Indeed, high-profile outlaws, including the notorious Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy – of “and the Sundance Kid” infamy – as well as the majority of their police and military antagonists, all wore derby hats. Eventually, the ubiquitous headpiece became so popular on the New Frontier that American historian and author Lucius Beebe came to describe it as “the hat that won the west.”
So, to recap, is anything that we think we know about the ten-gallon hat really true? We have seen that the origins of the item’s name are confused, and that the headgear was never really worn by the majority of cowboys. And we have learned that claims concerning the headpiece’s ten-gallon capacity simply do not hold water. Adding all this up, while considering the fact that Stetson’s company ceased production of the hat in 1968, what can we actually rely on?
Well, one thing holds true – John Batterson Stetson came up with a majorly iconic piece of millinery off the top of his head. His innovative design crossed economic, ethnic and gender lines and continues to be a symbol of endeavoring American spirit. And for that, we take our hat off to Stetson – even if there is no way it could hold ten gallons of champagne to toast his success.