Hats off to Stetson, an American classic

A Stetson hat that John Wayne gave to Joe Franklin before appearing on the latter’s namesake television show in 1963 earned $9,800 in April 2016. Image courtesy of Saco River Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

A comfortable hat provides more than just warmth and protection, it can make a statement, too. No one knows that better than the legendary American hat company Stetson.

The iconic headgear evolved directly from the Gold Rush of 1848. Young men seeking to strike it rich endured frigid temperatures, snow, rain and constant flooding while trying to find a chunk of the shiny yellow metal that would make all the discomfort worth it. 

A 1942 Edward McKnight Kauffer poster shows the pop-culture ubiquity of the Stetson brand. The phrase ‘Keep it under your Stetson’ was as popular during World War II as the phrase ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ This example of the poster achieved $1,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Like his fellow miner Levi Strauss, John Batterson Stetson (American, 1830-1906) made his fortune by inventing a product that made miners’ lives easier. He created a water-resistant long-brimmed felt hat that provided some protection from the elements and shade from the sun. Beaver pelts yielded a strong felt that Stetson pressed with other animal felts to form into a hat with a tall crown. He introduced it in 1865 as the “Boss of the Plains.” A story associated with the hatmaker claims a miner on horseback paid $5 – about $90 in modern dollars – for the hat perched on Stetson’s own head. Having passed this unorthodox test of market appeal, Stetson founded the John B. Stetson Hat Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Within a decade the name John B Stetson became synonymous with the word ‘hat’ in every corner and culture west of the Mississippi River,” said Texas Bix Bender, author of Hats & the Cowboys Who Wear Them. 

A lot consisting of various LBJ material, led by a Stetson with a sweatband marked ‘Made by Stetson Especially For Lyndon Baines Johnson’ earned $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022. Image courtesy of A&S Antique Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Making a felt hat is a challenging process, that hasn’t changed much since the time of John Stetson, who learned the trade from his father. Finding the right animal fur or combination of animal furs for the felt is still labor intensive and costly. The Stetson company website states its felt hats contain beaver, mink, chinchilla and other animal furs. Stetson describes the amount of beaver fur used for each felt hat as the X quality: “The higher the X’s, the higher percentage of beaver fur is mixed in the hat … the exact percentages are a manufacturing secret formula that we choose not to share.”

Stetson made more than cowboy hats. A beaver top hat with its original hat box, bearing inside its brim a stamp saying it was made ‘especially for Ulysses S. Grant,’ sold for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2020. Image courtesy of Rentzel’s Auction Service Inc and LiveAuctioneers

Converting fur to felt involves hot water, steam and lots of pressing into shape – a Stetson hat typically requires two days to go from raw materials to finished product. The wearer determines its final shape. For example, a center crease for the crown, a pinch on either side and a rolled brim forms the cowboy-hat style called the Carlsbad (so named because its unique creases were first created in Carlsbad, New Mexico). Once the desired shape is chosen, the Stetson is heavily steamed and “blocked,” or formed against a hat-shape wooden block, to fix and confirm it. Individual styling details may include feathers, leather straps and even precious metals or jewelry. Once purely utilitarian, the cowboy hat has transformed into an independent fashion statement.

An early Montana Peak Stetson with a marked satin liner and a wide ribbon hatband sold for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of New Frontier Western Show & Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Stetson’s genius extended beyond millinery to marketing. After he formalized the production process to make hats in quantity, he launched the brand by giving the product away to small retailers and general stores in mining communities. As the new hat proved itself worthy among miners, as Stetson knew it would, demand soared.

An undated Stetson Hat Co/ window card featuring art by Edward Borein achieved $7,250 against an estimate of $250-$300 in September 2017. Image courtesy of Showtime Auction Services and LiveAuctioneers

It should be mentioned that Stetson lived in a world where everyone wore hats, all day, every day. Hats were, of course, useful. They kept the sun out of the wearer’s eyes before the invention of sunglasses. They served as briefcases for those who liked to tuck important documents inside them. And, of course, they warmed and protected the head. But they also signaled the wearer’s profession, and, by extension, their rank and status.

Tom Mix, the first star of silent film Westerns, wore an authentic Stetson Boss of the Plains 10-gallon cowboy hat specifically because the high crown and single crease looked great on camera.
His Stetson and his Colt SAA together realized $32,000 plus buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of Burley Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Universal hat-wearing began a slow decline in the early 20th century, coincidentally at the same time when silent films were on the rise. By the mid-1920s, 50 million people – roughly half the country’s population – went to the movies every week. Tom Mix, the first famous cinematic cowboy, appeared on screen in a 10-gallon hat (which really only held three-quarters of a gallon). Gene Autry and Will Rogers sported cowboy hats early in the era of the talkies, aka movies with sound. John Wayne owned the role of the silver screen cowboy like no one before or since, and he virtually never stepped before the camera without the requisite headgear. The Stetson he wore in the 1948 classic Red River is almost as iconic as the film itself.

Another John Wayne-owned Stetson has a great story behind it – the lot notes that Wayne used it to pay an overdue dinner check, yelling, “Take my xxx-damned hat, it ought to be worth at least that much!” Stetson graded it XXXXX, meaning that it was one of the highest-quality felt hats the company produced. It achieved $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Ever adept in the realm of marketing, Stetson supplied cowboy hats to movie stars, and in turn, featured the hat-wearing actors in its advertisements. The company understood that if you liked the actor, you’d buy the hat. 

A Stetson hat owned by President Harry S Truman, which survived with its original Stetson case bearing an H.S.T monogram, sold for $1,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

President John F. Kennedy is broadly (and incorrectly) blamed for the demise of hat-wearing, a societal shift that actually began decades earlier. Over time, Stetson, like all other hat makers, was affected by changing tastes. By 1968, the company no longer made its own hats. Instead, it became a licensor, granting other companies the right to manufacture all Stetson hats under strict standards of quality. Hatco of Garland, Texas, is the current licensee for the entire Stetson catalog and employs about 200 people.

A circa-1920s Art Deco neon sign touting Stetson hats realized $3,400 against an estimate of $550-$600 in June 2016. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

It’s not easy to determine when a Stetson hat was made simply by looking at it, although most bear some clues that help to narrow down their vintage.

  • Hats from the 1920s to the late 1930s had a round gold sticker attached to the inside sweatband with the size of the hat printed on it. A ¾-inch round black size tag made of paper, with a gold outline and a number, was in use from the 1940s through the 1960s, while a square black tag with the size listed in gold was employed from the 1970s to the present day.
  • You can check for a union label, which is located in the hat band. The United Hatters Cap and Millinery Workers label was used from 1934 until 1983 when a merger changed the union label to Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. No union labels appeared on Stetsons prior to 1934.
  • Under the hat’s crown inside, you may see a colored printed liner of a cowboy giving his horse water from his cowboy hat. It’s an image known as “The Last Drop” which has been used from the 1970s to the present day. Prior to the advent of this liner, variations of a coat-of-arms design were in use as far back as the 1920s.

To better identify Stetson hats by design, era and type, you may wish to consult Jeffrey B. Snyder’s book Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Hat Company. You can also seek assistance from online groups dedicated to the history and legacy of the Stetson hat.

A Stetson hat, whether vintage or contemporary, is wearable history. Those who donned Stetsons made under the founder’s watch wore them because they needed to, but in the 21st century, you don a Stetson because you want to, and that makes all the difference.