The Cowboy Hat

The history behind it.

No single piece of clothing is more endemic of the rugged spirit of the American West than the cowboy hat. The first cowboy hats were most likely modified versions of the vaqueros’ sombreros or the broad-brimmed hats worn by union and confederate officers. However, John B. Stetson is credited as the inventor of the cowboy hat as it is known today.

On a hunting trip out west in 1865, Stetson made a bet with his buddies that he could make a hat employing only the material at hand. Using skills he had learned in his father’s hat factory, Stetson stripped game hides of fur and boiled it. This boiled fur formed a sort of crude felt. Stetson then packed and shaped this felt and boiled it again; once the material was of proper consistency, he formed it like a cone. Stetson then shaped and trimmed the cone and thus the cowboy hat was born.

Having won the bet, Stetson wore the hat for the remainder of the trip. While it started as a joke, Stetson grew fond of the hat and its ability to shade him from the sun, as well as shed water. Ranch hands on the trip were impressed with the hat as well. Upon his return home Stetson began commercial production of his “cowboy’s hat.”

The modern cowboy hat has changed little in its manufacture since John Stetson’s time; as a matter of fact, many of the devices used in hat-making today are the same ones used in the 1800s. Cowboy hats are made chiefly of fur felt, which varies in quality depending upon the blend. A quality hat can run anywhere from $70-$700. The other popular material for cowboy hat manufacture is straw. Again the price depends on quality, and there are literally hundreds of styles and shapes. Most ranchers and cowboys own two hats: a felt hat for winter and inclement weather, and a straw hat for the hot dry summer months.

Traditionally, the cowboy hat was shaped by its wearer, and depending on the crease in the crown or the roll of the brim, one could usually tell where any particular cowboy was from. Today, however, most cowboy hats look very similar to one another and one would be better off identifying a person’s locale by license plate. In and around Bozeman, the most popular style of cowboy hat appears to be the black felt stockman, the same hat worn by many pro rodeo riders and country singers. Other popular colors are buckskin, silver belly, and tan. Cowboy hats, like cowboys themselves, are varied and unique; the number of different styles is staggering and pretty much depends on personal taste.

There are two ways to get a hat of your own. One way is to head down to your local western wear or ranch supply store and pull your size off the rack. The other way is to have one custom-made. Fortunately for us, one of the best custom hat-makers in the country is located just two miles south of Four Corners. Rocky Mountain Hat Company is a father-and-son team and these gentlemen specialize in custom hats, period. Each customer is carefully measured and a wooden block is made in the exact dimensions of the customer’s head; this block becomes the form on which the hat is made. The end result is a truly custom cowboy hat in the style, color, and finish of your choice. Rocky Mountain Hat Co. offers two materials to chose from. The 100% beaver felt is the highest quality and is available in black or natural color. The base price for this hat is $650. The next option is 50% beaver felt and is available in all colors and starts at $450.

So whether you’re trying to fit in at the next rodeo or you just need something to keep the elements off your noggin, you might want to try a cowboy hat. For more information on cowboy hats or to get your own, contact these shops:

Rocky Mountain Hat Co.
80085 Gallatin Rd., Suite A
Bozeman, Mt 59718

Four Corners Saddlery
81720 Gallatin Rd.
Bozeman, Mt 59718

Corral West Ranch Wear
Hastings Shopping Center
Bozeman, Mt 59715