The cowboy hat is a shield from harsh elements, a representation of style, and a symbol that shows the wearer is an integral part of the American West. The cowboy hat says, "I am the Wild American West. I belong here."
Tracking the origin of the cowboy hat is like trying to come up with a standard recipe for cowboy stew--there are so many ingredients, it's difficult to say what does and does not belong in the official recipe. There is evidence that wide-brimmed hats with high crowns were worn by Mongolian horsemen in the 13th century!
As for the American Old West, the cowboy hat was not the only hat worn by those who lived and died in the Wild West. In fact, there were many hats worn in the Wild West, including sailor hats, uniform caps from the Civil War, and the Bowler, which Lucius Beebe referred to as "The Hat that Won the West" in an October 25, 1957 issue of The Deseret News. Beebe claims the Mormons wore "black, flat-brimmed sombreros" and the Wells Fargo Chief of Detectives wore a Derby, but photographic evidence shows that bowlers were more common to those who lived in town and cowboy hats were more common in Texas. The best way to explain it is to say that men wore whatever hat fit their personality and their role in the Wild West.
Credit for the invention of what we now know as the "cowboy hat" is most often given to John Batterson Stetson, who began his manufacturing operation of cowboy hats in the 1860s with $100 in a one-room building and called his company the John B. Stetson Company. He called his hats the "Hat of the West" or the "Boss of the Plains." Stetson started his company by creating his own hat from beaver pelts. He made his hat to protect his head from the elements while he panned for gold in Colorado. When he was 35, Stetson returned to Pennsylvania, perfected the design of his hat, and sent samples with a form letter to store owners asking for minimum orders of the "Hat of the West" before agreeing to shipment. Stetson's business approach, and his hat design, were remarkably successful. By 1886, Stetson was the largest hat manufacturer in the world.
A 2009 television documentary titled How do They do it? explains the process of cowboy hat manufacture with a visit to the Resistol Hat Company, which was started in Texas in 1920 by the young millionaire E.R. Byer. Byer invested in the talents of hat maker Harry Rolnick and the two formed a legendary partnership--Resistol. Resistol stands for "resist all weather."
To make their hats, Resistol uses a traditional method and machines that are over 100 years old and require a great deal of maintenance and special order replacement parts. Some of their machine parts were made in the 1820s. There are many machines involved, too, as the manufacture of a cowboy hat requires 200 different processes.
Although contemporary cowboy hats are made from many things, the Resistol cowboy hats are made from a mix of beaver, rabbit, and wild hare. The fur arrives in bales and is layered by hand, but shredded and mixed by machine. The end result is very dense, so the mix is placed in a blowing machine to separate the fibers. The product now looks like clothes dryer lint. A rolling machine then draws out long hair and creates a blanket of short fur, but it still has to be made into felt. If the product is rubbed between the palms of the hands with a bit of water and forms a mat that cannot be pulled apart, then it is considered ready for the next step.
The fur is weighed into hat-size portions and fed into a hat-forming machine and a giant vacuum sucks the fibers onto a spinning cone. The foreman, a craftsman whose skill has been passed down through generations, then gathers the cones, wraps them in damp cloth, slides a metal form on top and immerses the cones into vats of hot water, which loosens the fibers. The fabric is then sent through giant rollers that bind the fibers into the dense felt needed to form a hat. The fabric is rolled again, and the felt continues to constrict, becoming denser and stronger.
Now the hat must be shaped to look like the iconic cowboy hat. The felt is sent through a steamer and vibrating shaper that forms the felt into the hat. The hats are now "basic" cowboy hats, but basic isn't good enough for the American cowboy, so the hats are trucked 120 miles away to Hatco, Inc.'s finishing factory in Garland, Texas, the largest cowboy hat finishing factory in the world.
At the finishing factory, the basic felt cowboy hat is covered with shellac, a resin secreted by the female Lac Bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. The shellac not only helps shape the hat, it also gives the felt its shiny appearance. Next, the hats are air-dryed, then steamed and shaped for specific head sizes. Now it's time to form the crown, which insulates and protects the head of the cowboy from the rain. The felt is sent through yet another shaping machine to create the cowboy hat "dent" in the felt of the crown. The hat is then sent to the trim department for unique bands on the outside and protective linings sewn onto the inside bottom rim. Quality control checks the hat carefully, then the hat is boxed up and delivered to stores.
Although the cowboy hat may have had many influences contributing to its current state, it is now as unique as the American cowboy, one of a kind, a symbol of the American Wild West.