The Boss of the Plains Still Reigns: The History of the Cowboy Hat

It was the spring of 1849 and John B. Stetson was on a hunting trip near Pikes Peak, just outside Colorado Springs (about 45 minutes from Chico Basin Ranch), when he came up with the original design of what is now considered the classic “cowboy hat.” Stetson, in an effort to impress his comrades, collected beaver pelts and, over the course of several weeks, made himself an exceptionally large hat. The basic construction of the hat consisted of a wide, flat brim, and tall, open crown; the wider brim provided more shade and, in harsh wind and rain, the taller crown could be pushed down farther on the head and secured. John was teased by his friends for wearing such a ridiculous hat until a stranger rode up on his horse and asked to buy it off his head for a five dollar silver coin. Stetson obliged and off went the stranger in the first American cowboy hat.

It took several formative years out West, of living among cowboys and settlers, to ignite Stetson’s entrepreneurial spirit. That serendipitous transaction was the catalyst Stetson needed -- he would make more hats just like that one, for folks living out West -- practical and designed to shield people from the elements and hold up to wear and tear. Stetson’s father was a hat maker, so Stetson had an understanding of the craft and the skills to market his new business idea. He returned home to Philadelphia after the Pike’s Peak hunting trip and got to work. Stetson toyed with different fur-felt combinations but settled on beaver pelts for their water-resistancy and pliability. By 1865, Stetson was manufacturing the cowboy hat and calling it the Boss of the Plains. 

The Boss of the Plains is an iteration of the wide-brimmed straw sombrero that the vaqueros of central Mexico wore as early as the 18th century. As cattle ranching spread throughout the Southwestern United States, so too did the sombrero; a hat that provided shade and insulation. The Boss of the Plains is shaped a bit differently, with a flat brim and open crown. It’s the blueprint for all of today’s cowboy hats and the construction has remained relatively unchanged since its inception in 1865. Hats can be made from fur/felt combinations, straw or palm leaf (like the Sunbody hats we carry), and even leather. All hats have a sweatband on the inside base of the crown. 

As people settled throughout the West, depending on their location and profession, they began to customize their Boss of the Plains hat, changing the shape of the crown and brim to fit their specific needs. If you lived in Montana, you didn’t need as wide a brim, but Texans preferred a wider brim to shield them from the sun. Certain styles emerged by accident, too, depending on how the owner handled their hat. If they grabbed their hat off the table by pinching the crown, over time it would create a crease. If they handled the hat by the brim when hanging it up, the sides would curve up or down. 

Throughout the 20th century, different states, and even certain ranches, became associated with different styles of hats. Visit any one of our Ranchlands properties and you’ll see our staff wear a range of styles - everything from a modern day version of the Ten Gallon to a classic Cattleman’s Crease. Out West, a hat reveals much about the wearer’s identity; where they’re from, what kind of cowboy or horsemanship philosophy they adhere to, and, sometimes, what their socioeconomic status is. Other factors to consider are aesthetic preferences; what flatters a certain face shape or completes the outfit. The styles that originated at the turn of the 20th century are just as alive today, and below you’ll find a brief glossary of some classic Western styles worn by the Ranchlands staff. 


The Ten Gallon

In the early 1920’s, Texas became the home of the Ten Gallon hat. Legend has it that this hat could hold ten gallons of water, enough to quench the thirst of a cowboy and his horse. Stetson riffed on this idea and ran a very successful ad campaign in 1924.

 

Lon Megargee’s iconic illustration for a Stetson campaign, circa 1924. 


Although the Ten Gallon hat had a tall crown, the origin of the name actually comes from an anglicized version of the Spanish word galon, meaning hat braid (Americans confused ‘galons’ with ‘gallons’ and thus the name was born). 

 

Duke III and his grandson, Woods, at a Chico Basin Ranch branding in 2020. The style Duke is sporting is close to the Ten Gallon hat and has a tall, open crown. Photo by Brennan Cira.



The Cattleman’s Crease

One of the oldest American styles and the most ubiquitous cowboy hat in production today. Beginning in the late 19th century, ranchers started wearing this type of hat, characterized by a single crease down the center and two creases on the side. It’s a traditional look, a safe bet if you’re not wanting to make too much of a statement. Many of the Ranchlands staff members wear this style.

 

Brandon (left), an apprentice at the Chico Basin Ranch, and Jason Steitz (center), a neighbor, are both wearing Cattleman’s Crease hats. This photo is from our most recent branding in the Chico corrals. Photo by Claudia Landreville.

 

Kate, Zapata Ranch manager (left), and Louis, a ranch apprentice (center), both wearing a Cattleman’s Crease style hat at a sorting at the Zapata this past winter.. Photo by Katrina Flynn.


The Bolero

The Telescope Crease, sometimes called the Gambler or Bolero, has a round flat crown and medium length brim. Originally brought over by Mexican cowboys to Nevada and other parts of the Southwest, the Telescope Crease’s short crown prevents hot air from gathering and the wide brim gives ample sun protection. A version of this hat that’s popular among our ranch staff, particularly wranglers, is the Vaquero. It typically has a wider brim for longer days in the sun.

 

 

Duke III  wearing a version of the Telescope Crease at 2020 Bison Works at the Zapata. Photo by Elliot Ross.

 

 

Sally, one of the wranglers at the Zapata this season, in a Vaquero style Sunbody hat. Photo by Katrina Flynn.


The Montana Peak

The Montana Peak is similar to the Cattleman's Crease, but with a more pronounced  center pinch, causing the crown to slope downwards towards the center of the face. Tom Mix, the famous Western movie star of the 1920s and 1930s, popularized this style of hat. He and John Wayne inspired the next generation of cowboys, presidents, and cultural figures to wear similar styles. 

Tom Mix in the Montana Crease.


The Pinch Front

The Pinch Front is exactly that, one pinch front and center; less audacious than a Tom Mix Montana Crease. It’s similar to the Fedora or an Outback-style hat and traditionally popular among women for its flattering silhouette.

Zara, a wrangler at the Zapata last season, in a subtle Pinch Front crease. Photo by Andrea Posadas.


 A person can spend a lifetime trying on different hats and never settle on just one. Much of the appeal, and the fun, is in the plethora of choices available to you. Maybe it’s the historical context that attracts you to a certain style, or it’s simply an aesthetic preference, there is no right or wrong answer. We recommend starting a hat collection with a Sunbody hat from our shop, which comes in a Boss of the Plains style. By soaking it and molding it with your hands, you have the freedom to shape it as you wish, and test out some of the styles mentioned above at a fraction of the cost of a felt hat. Hats should be a vibrant form of self expression as much as a tool of the trade. Sweat stains, dirt, and dust are all points of pride to a rancher, a symbol of the work and of a life lived outdoors. As time passes there are variations on a theme, but the essence of the original “Boss” is always there.