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Boss of the Plains

The Boss of the plains was a lightweight all-weather hat designed by John B. Stetson for the demands of the American west. It was intended to be durable, waterproof and elegant. [1] This design, and the term "Stetson," eventually became all-but-interchangeable with what later became known as the cowboy hat.



The Boss had all the refinements of the world’s most elegant hats. The hat band was used to tighten the hat, with the knot on the left side to keep out of the way. The brim was stiff enough to lay flat. Inside the tie-string, a bow was placed on the back of a gold stamped sweatband, and a lining was included to protect the hat.[2] The weather-resistant materials used both then and now, were expensive, difficult to obtain, and required many hours of skillful handling to create a quality hat.


Gunfighters, some wearing a Boss of the plains
The Boss was designed with a high crown to provide insulation on the top of the head, a wide stiff brim to provide shelter from both sun and precipitation for the face, neck and shoulders. The original fur-felt hat was waterproof and shed rain. Overall, the hat was durable and lightweight.[3] On the underside, the hat included a sweatband, a lining, and, as a memorial to earlier designs, a bow on its sweatband, that had the practical purpose of helping distinguish the front from the back. The original designs were natural in color with four-inch crowns and brims; a plain strap was used for the band. [4]

For years, Stetson worried about the waterproofing, and finally decided to make his hat of beaver felt. [5] It took about 42 beaver to produce a high quality hat. [6] Because of the tight weave of most Stetson hats, it was waterproof enough to be used as a bucket. [7][8][9] One story tells of a cowboy crossing a long dry stretch of prairie. His canteen sprung a leak. He saved the drinking water by carrying it in his Stetson.[10] Stetson featured advertising of a cowboy watering his horse with water carried in the crown. The wearer could also use the brim to direct water to a person's mouth. A high quality hat in good condition was also viewed in some places as a status symbol.[9]

Customization and change

An Apache man wearing a "Boss of the plains" Stetson

The straight-sided, round cornered, flat brimmed original Boss of the plains design dominated for about twenty years. [11] Most 19th century photographs that show the hat doesn't show an intentional crease at all. Most hats were kept open crown. [12] However, through use, abuse, and customization by individual wearers, hats were modified from their new appearance. In particular, the crown would become dented, at first inadvertently, then by deliberate choice of individual owners. The brim was often rolled or curved and ornamentation was sometimes added. Often, these creases and brim shapes began to reflect where a particular hat owner lived or worked, and in some cases even cowboys on individual ranches could be identified by the crease in their hat. [13]

Thus, the manufactured styles also began to change. The first popular modification was a long crease sloping from the high back down towards the front, called the "Carlsbad crease" after a style used by wearers in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Another design, derived from the pointed top of the Mexican sombrero worked its way north and became known as the "Montana peak," which had four dents, originally derived from being handled on top with four fingers.


Movie star Tom Mix with a Stetson

Entertainers who promoted cowboy and western culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s popularized Stetson designs. For example, Buffalo Bill had custom hats with very wide brims made for his Wild West Shows, with later designs created for Hollywood including the Tom Mix style "ten-gallon" hats used in Western films.

Over time, the working cowboy hat of the ranch cowboy, as modified by popular entertainers and rodeo competitors, became an essential part of the cowboy image. At times, various politicians, celebrities and certain law enforcement units adopted descendants of the Boss of the plains hat to strengthen their association with the culture and values of the Old West. [14] The Boss of the plains-inspired design that became the modern cowboy hat has remained basically unchanged in construction and design since the first one created in 1865, demonstrating the degree to which form succeeded in following function. [15]

See also

  • Chupalla
  • Hats
  • Hatter
  • John B. Stetson Company
  • Ranch
  • Sombrero
  • Western wear


  1. Flanagan, Mike. The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Old West (1999) pg 239 ISBN 0028629450
  2. Wolff Edwin D. Why We Do It (1929) ISBN 0836910060
  3. Cowboys & the Trappings of the Old West by William Manns. Pg 22 ISBN 0939549131
  4. Snyder, Jeffrey B. (1997) Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970. Pg 50 ISBN 0-7643-0211-6
  5. Chamber's journal, Published by Orr and Smith, 1952, pg 200, Original from the University of Michigan
  6. http://www.angusworld.ca/issues/2004/hatdoc.htm
  7. Reynolds, William and Rich Rand (1995) The Cowboy Hat book. Pg 11 ISBN 0-87905-656-8
  8. Snyder, Jeffrey B. (1997) Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970. Pg 34 ISBN 0-7643-0211-6
  9. 9.0 9.1 Blevins, Winfred Dictionary of the American West: over 5,000 terms and expressions from Aarigaa! to Zopilote (2001) pg 370 ISBN 1570613044
  10. Flemmons, Jerry, Curmudgeon in corduroy: the best of Jerry Flemmons' Texas, pg 96 ISBN 0875652174
  11. Snyder, Jeffrey B. (1997) Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970 1997 ISBN 0-7643-0211-6 pg 73
  12. In search of the real cowboy hat, Cowboy Chronicle, April 2004
  13. Blevins, Winfred. Dictionary of the American West: over 5,000 terms and expressions from Aarigaa! to Zopilote (2001) pg 371 ISBN 1570613044
  14. Snyder, Jeffrey B. (1997) Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970 1997 pg5 ISBN 0-7643-0211-6
  15. Reynolds, William and Rich Rand (1995) The Cowboy Hat book. Pg 8 ISBN 0-87905-656-8


  • Carlson, Laurie. (1998) Boss of the plains, the hat that won the West. ISBN 0-7894-2479-7
  • Manns, William. (1997) Cowboys & the Trappings of the Old West. ISBN 0939549131
  • Snyder, Jeffrey B. (1997) Stetson Hats and the John B. Stetson Company 1865-1970. ISBN 0-7643-0211-6

External links

  • In search of the real cowboy hat, Cowboy Chronicle April 2004 reprint, accessed online April 1, 2009. [1]
  • John B. Stetson Hat Co. to revive, the famed ‘Boss of the Plains’ hat, accessed online April 28, 2009. [2]


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