Our history books are filled with stories of the great “old west” frontiersmen: Fremont, Bridger, Cody, Carson, Hickok and pages of others. But, there was one man whose name we all know but who is not mentioned in the classroom text books. Few think of him as having much of an influence over life on the frontier but his name is known by every westerner living today. He was from New Jersey and really wasn’t “out west” very long. He was young and frail with lots of health problems. In his early years, he suffered from tuberculosis which left him with little hope for survival. He was told that he would die if he didn’t leave his New Jersey home and find a drier climate.
With that in mind, this young man moved to St. Joseph, Missouri to work for a trading company outfitting expeditions into the Rocky Mountains. He was offered the opportunity to become a gold prospector and left with an outfitting group headed for Pike’s Peak, Colorado. Though he hoped for a healthier climate, he also wanted to see the West and experience the unknown before he died. That is how John B. Stetson, an easterner, who once worked as an apprentice “hatter” for his father in New Jersey entered the scene of the wild, wild West.
He learned how to work with furs, hides, and cloth, a skill that came in pretty handy when he was on a prospecting expedition. Supposedly, while mining near Pike’s Peak, his group got stranded in the mountains with no shelter. Since Stetson knew how to process hides, he decided to make a tent out of animal skins but it didn’t work out too well. He was a felting expert but he didn’t have the right equipment for felting fabrics. So, out in a blizzard, he worked with the rabbit, coyote, and beaver hair as best he could. Using a primitive process, he was able to make a decent tent that was durable and dry. Satisfied with his felting efforts, he next tried to make himself a hat that would protect him from the sun, wind, and rain. He felted a practical hat similar to the Mexican sombrero. His friends were still not convinced that he knew anything about anything and joked as he wore his new hat everywhere.
Though initially his hats were not very popular, Stetson was pleased when he sold his first hat for $5.00. He began to think of the possibilities of the potential “gold mine” in making and selling the hat that would become the signature article of all westerners for all time.
Before this time, westerners had no signature hat. They wore everything from a bowler, a top hat, a derby, to an old Civil War hat. Stetson’s genius led to the making of the most popular hat on the continent - the Stetson “cowboy hat”. John B Stetson’s first hat, the Boss of the Plains, became the standard style for the Stetson Hat Company. It would be difficult then or now to find a rancher, rodeo cowboy, country singer, or any “westerner” without a cowboy hat and anyone interested in status wore a Stetson.
Stetson’s hats were made of felt, straw, and leather. The most popular and most expensive was the beaver hat but the most practical was the felt hat. Felting was a tedious process that took many stages of dipping, agitating, and “shocking” the fiber to insure that the microfibers would lock together. One of the solutions used in the agitation process was a chemical called mercury nitrate. There were no precautions taken in the 1860s to keep the hatters from inhaling the mercury fumes. It wasn’t until later that they discovered the damage done to the brain from inhaling the fumes during the felting process and that the damage was linked to the mercury nitrates. Many hatters developed such brain diseases as dementia and seizures. Terms such as “Mad as a Hatter” or “Mad Hatter” were labels put on the unfortunate hatter who did turn mad after inhaling the poisonous mercury fumes. Stetson, conscious of the malady afflicting the hatters, always put a bow on the sweatband in the back of every Stetson hat in memory of the “Mad Hatters”. Even today, the felt cowboy hat will have the memorial bow inside the hat.
Though the Stetson Hat Co. signature hat was the Boss of the Plains, every man in the “old west” had his own version. There was the cattleman’s hat, the Texas Ranger hat, Canadian Royal Mounted Police hat, the cavalry hat, the rodeo hat, the “Ten Gallon” hat and so many more. Even though the Stetson cowboy hat is now mass produced, today’s hat is basically unchanged from John B. Stetson’s first Boss of the Plains.
Sigmund Freud once said that “A cowboy hat is never just a hat. It comes directly from the source: big blue skies and vast prairies. It speaks of freedom, full moons and gravel roads: of western wisdom and cowboy cool.” Freud so honored the cowboy hat that he said the “cowboy hat wears the man as much as a man wears it.” John B. Stetson created more than a hat. He created an eternal legend that is to this day a part of western culture.