IT WAS THE FIRST HAT
JOHN B. STETSON EVER SOLD.
Nearly 200 years after his birth, John B. Stetson, and the company he founded, are synonymous with innovation, independence, and handcrafted American headwear. His name appears in novels by Hemingway and Steinbeck, in iconic folk songs like “Stagger Lee,” and in more recent tunes by such varied artists as Steely Dan, The Roots, and Lyle Lovett, who sang that “My John B. Stetson was my only friend” in his classic, “Don’t Touch My Hat.
The son of a hatter, born in 1830, the seventh of 12 children, Stetson grew up in the family business until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis while in his 20s. Seeking relief—and perhaps a bit of adventure—he headed West. He first landed in St. Joseph, Missouri, where he worked his way up the ranks of a local brickyard, becoming an owner before the factory, and his fortune washed away in a river flood. From there, he fell in with the gold rushers and cowboys of the era, making frequent expeditions to Pike’s Peak in Colorado in search of gold, which led him to that fateful Colorado rainstorm.
While in the Rockies, Stetson had noticed the shortcomings of the coonskin caps Westerners often wore. They were prone to fleas, they didn’t provide much shade from the sun, and they didn’t hold up in the rain. His invention fixed all that, and as news of this new breed of headwear took hold, Stetson headed back east to Philadelphia, launching his business in a one-room workshop with $60 he borrowed from his sister.
There, he developed The Boss of the Plains, based on his Pike’s Peak creation, a lightweight and all-weather fur felt hat with a high, creased four-inch crown and a wide four-inch brim. Instantly iconic, the hat sold far and wide, equally renowned for its quality and practicality. Working with different shapes and materials, he created hats for city and country, eventually selling millions of hats per year in the half-century that followed, including many styles that we still make today.
Stetson’s entrepreneurial skills were matched by his passion for the well-being of his workers. In an era of meager workers’ rights, Stetson, a devout Baptist, paid good wages and offered extensive benefits to the thousands of people who made a Stetson a Stetson. He provided a robust profit-sharing program, created a building and loan that helped countless workers become homeowners, and built and operated a hospital for employees and the community. He even had an intramural softball league that played during working hours on Wednesday afternoons, among other athletic opportunities. Stetson also helped find the YMCA in Philadelphia and was an early benefactor of Florida’s Deland University, renamed John B. Stetson University in 1889. Its School of Business Administration and College of Law, founded in 1897 and 1900, respectively, were the first of their kind in the state.
Stetson died in Deland in 1906, but his legacy endures. Throughout the 20th Century and on into the 21st, the Stetson has remained an icon of purpose-driven American style, from the dusty ranches of West Texas to the sidewalks of New York. It’s no wonder everyone from the silent film star Tom Mix (who has a hat named after him) to presidents from Truman and LBJ to Ronald Reagan to countless actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other modern pioneers have made a Stetson their signature.
They come from all walks of life, but all are bound by a shared appreciation for the quality, character, and a spirit of adventure—and one man’s ingenuity during a fateful Colorado rainstorm more than 150 years ago.