John Stetson was born in 1830 to a father with a thriving business called the No Name Hat Company. From a young age Stetson learned the hatter’s trade, but his health was never the best in the cold, wet East. By about 1860, his doctor had informed him that he was headed for an early demise.
There were few cures for chronic illnesses in those days, but many believed that a change of air was beneficial. Quite a few men pulled up their stakes and headed West in hopes of regaining their health. In reality, the change seemed to either completely cure or finally kill those who tried it, but, as Stetson reflected, what did he have to lose? This would be his only chance to see the West anyway.
Stetson’s first stop was Saint Joseph, Missouri. There he earned a living for a time in a brick factory, even becoming a partner in the business. However, a flood destroyed most of the brickyard. Stetson had to find another job.
Fortunately, there was gold at Pike’s Peak. Having lived in Saint Joseph, Stetson could not have failed to hear about it. He joined a group of hopeful prospectors headed still further west, eager both to earn a living and to sample some healthful mountain air.
Stetson never did strike it rich in the Rocky Mountains. Not only did panning in various streams reveal nothing, but cold winds and driving rains reminded him all too much of the Eastern climate which he had left behind for his health. Stetson and his companions shot beavers and other animals to collect skins for a tent, only to realize that they had no way to tan the hides.
Here Stetson’s hat-making experience came to the rescue. He shaved the fur off of the skins. Using water and repeated agitation, he was able to form the fur into a dense mat—felt! Quickly, the prospectors put up a tent made out of felt. To their delight, it was warm, and the waterproof beaver fur shed the rain perfectly.
Once Stetson knew how to make felt with nothing but what the wilderness could provide, he found another use for his handy skill. Having experienced firsthand the inclement weather of the Rocky Mountains, he decided to make himself a hat. His first hat featured a high crown such as his father had taught him to make. The crown would trap a pocket of air on top of the head, providing insulation from temperature extremes. However, Stetson’s hat had a few other features that were unique. He borrowed the wide brim familiar on Mexican sombreros, since it would shield his face from sun and rain. The waterproof beaver fur also meant that the hat could be used as a bucket in an emergency.
Stetson enjoyed the comfort of his creation for a time, but he happened to meet a wandering Mexican cowboy who took a fancy to his hat. The Mexican offered him a five-dollar gold piece in exchange for the hat, and Stetson accepted. He had just earned more gold from his felting skill than he had ever found as a prospector.
By this time, Stetson had recovered his health and was rather tired of the hardships of unsuccessful prospecting. He decided to return to the trade that had always served him well—making hats. In 1865, he headed east once more, setting up shop in Philadelphia.
The first few hats that Stetson made were patterned after the styles popular at the time, and none of them established his reputation. On an inspiration, Stetson decided to try a style that no one else was making. He decided to replicate the five-dollar felt hat that had caught the eye of the traveling Mexican and market it to the men of the West, who needed such a handy invention. He made several hats, sent them to dealers out West as samples, and waited for orders.
The “Boss of the Plains,” as Stetson called his unique hat, was an instant success in the West. It was useful, versatile, and durable, making it a perfect fit for the rugged outdoor life of the men who wore it. By the very next year, Stetson had his own factory and several new employees.
When Buffalo Bill Cody and many of his performers began to wear Stetson hats in their acts in the 1880s, the rapidly growing popularity of the Stetson exploded. Before long, Stetson owned the largest hat factory in the world.