Myth, Media & Hats

by Pawnee Bill

From the cas-l archive

Someone started a discussion of Myth and media as it relates to the Cowboy Image. I would like to add some comments on its effect on the development of the "cowboy hat." This is just some highlights from a long monograph that I'm afraid has been too many years in the making and is still not quite ready for publishing, but these rough notes may be of some use.

Just what is a cowboy hat? Normally it is a hat used by a cowboy, the profession established just after the civil war in Texas. The trade was only practiced by Anglos in very small numbers "before the war." Hats pictured in early photos of cowboys fall out in two type:

1 -The Pork Pie: This was the dominant style of hat for riders in the 1860's. It has approx. 3" brim & 3" or so crown telescoped so the top looks like a meat pie, thus the name. The crown looks similar to modern "roper hats" but is almost round on top. The pork pie is the hat popularized by Confederate Cavalrymen during the war. The narrow brim facilitates keeping the hat on the head as the stampede string was not in use this early on, although some hats from the 1860's have a lanyard that goes around the crown and can be let down and attached through a button hole. The pork pie had the advantages of being inexpensive as well as stylish. It was usually soft and was most often seen in "drab" (which in the 19th century meant gray, not olive) and black and less commonly in white. This is the hat most common on early photos of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill as well as most early buffalo hunters. It remained common into the late 1870's.

2 -The 4x4: This was the dominate hat style of rural America from about 1790 until about 1880. Today it is known by many names - "Boss of the plains," "Trapper, " and its variant the "planter" (which usually has a broader brim and was cream or white). Once again they were usually soft. They are distinguished by the practice of sewing a ribbon on the edge of the brim. Cheap models just added one to four rows of stitching to stiffen the brim. These early Cowboy hats have a distinctive three- piece lining consisting of a shaped morroco sweat band, a cotton or linen cap, and a silk crown piece. Very early models have the sweat band sewn directly onto the hat. The welt was not used on the earliest examples. As late as 1900, 90% of hats being advertised as "Cowboy Hats " were of this style.

Another important hat of the 1860's is the Hamburg (I'm not altogether sure if it was known by that name in the 60's). It has a moderately high crown (say 7") and is creased down the center so if you look at it straight on it looks like the letter M. The brim is about 3 1/2". It was often made from the extremely unpopular army issue Hardee hat. This is the hat used after the war by the veterans clubs the GAR & CVC. It often had a pencil roll brim and a slight up sweep on the sides. It was black for Union and gray for Confederate. It was purchased by the hundreds of thousands and was available everywhere from New York to San Francisco. This same hat became the 1885 campaign hat in light brown. It became the official movie cavalry hat as it was common and inexpensive and made way into the 1930's. When original supplies ran out, it was reproduced in an even cheaper version that is commonly available today in most every costume shop world wide.

MEDIA INFLUENCE , 1860's and EARLY 1870's
The media phenomenon of the 1860's was the illustrated news paper. A popular motif was dashing Cavalrymen in the thick of the fray swinging sabers in daring feats of bravado. This almost never happened in reality, but since most illustrators had never seen cavalrymen in action, it mattered little. The narrow brimmed, low crown hat of the Civil War cavalryman was distantly unromantic and just would not do for these heroic drawings. The illustrators substituted the wide-brimmed, upswept on the right side, often feathered hat of the 17th century to enhance the New Cavalier image. The cavalrymen were often shown in splendid braided jackets and crotch-high boots to round out the image. All of these were extremely rare in reality but they were adopted by a few (Custer comes to mind), but most clung to the pork pie, including Jeb Stewart, John Hunt Morgan, Phil Sheridan and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Although it was mythic invention, by the end of the war the cavalier hat was burned in to the popular mind. Shortly after the war, the plainsmen and cowboys became subjects of short novellas that were extremely popular in the west as well as in the east. For the next decade they were the benchmark of Western iconography. Initially they featured fictitious caricatures but before long they were based on real western figures, even if the stories were of a dubious nature.

If one studies the early dateable photos of Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill and Texas Jack, it will be found that they still sported the lowly pork pie. In 1872 Buffalo put his show on the road and the pork pie of the real plainsman was distinctly uncolorful enough for the new darling of the dime novels and the Chicago stage. The earliest photo I have been able to find of Buffalo Bill in the huge brimmed swept up white hat that was to become his trademark is on the stage in 1872. One can only assume that it came from the prop room of the theater, as he is also wearing a 4" wide belt with epic size buckle that would look more at home on Cyrano De Bergerac than a buffalo hunter.
When the hostilities broke out in 1876, Buffalo Bill went directly from the stage to the field to campaign against the plains Indians still wearing his black velvet Vaquero stage costume and his huge hat. At the battle of Warbonnet Creek he killed the head of the Dog soldiers (or so the story goes) in that very same Mexican stage costume and thus life imitates art. This became the motif of hundreds of news illustrations as the first scalp for Custer. Buffalo Bill reenacted this scene every season for the next 35 years, often in the actual costume worn to do the deed. These pictures were plastered all over the country and pretty soon any westerner worth his $30 a month was expected to wear the de rigueur Cavalier hat.

Several factors emerge in the 1880's that influence the "Cowboy" hat. Prior to 1880, the cowboy had to content himself with the 4x4 or its variants, or rely on the number of town style hats available at the time. The innovation of the Caviler hat in the 70's had little popularity amongst cowboys as it was hard blocked and somewhat pricey. Then four events occurred in the 80's to mold the cowboy consciousness so they thought of themselves as romantic figures and a class, rather than itinerant day laborers that they had been thought of in the 70's.

1. The extinction of the buffalo: Buffalo hunting as a profession was pretty much done in by 1885 so the previous western hero type, the plainsman and buffalo hunter somewhat died out. Many of the previous buffalo hunters and plainsmen became officers of the law in the cow towns because they had previously proven their skill at arms and courage in dealing with Indians. So the western pulp novels switched to the lawmen and their nemesis, the Texas cowboy, as the main themes.

2. The big freeze of 85/86: The general trend of ranching had been moving north through the 70's but cowboying was pretty much seasonal, working cattle on the open range. With the spreading of the railroad the long drives to market were becoming less and less frequent. Then in 1885/86 the big freeze occurred, killing off much of the cattle on the open range. After the freeze, the style of raising cattle changed radically to a more managed style which emphasized quality over quantity. It was done on a semi-sedentary basis. This changed the lifestyle of the cowboy, turning him into a ranch hand but giving him time and permanency to reflect on just what it meant to be a cowboy. This was the original western nostalgia movement, and it is the beginning of bunkhouse art that developed the items that we associate with cowboys to this day.

3. The illustrated mail order Catalog: Mail order was steadily increasing in the west from the 70's but in the 80's the fully illustrated catalog became available, thus making the introduction of innovation instantaneous and very widespread. Added to this was the fact that the cowboy now had an address. He could take advantage of a wider assortment of goods than had previously been available in the local economy. Catalog companies, hoping to capitalize on the developing romance of the west, begin labeling and selling items such as "the Plainsman Hat" and targeting their sales to all Americans who wished to identify with dime novel heroes and wild west show characters.

4. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: It is arguable when the first rodeo occurred but the first one with national exposure was the one held in North Platte Neb. in 1882. This was held in conjunction with the GAR convention and thousands of Civil War veterans saw the "Cowboy Fun" that was the central element of the performance offered by Buffalo Bill. This was the central event that will change the equestrian hero from the Civil War Cavalrymen to the Cowboy. This show was seen by many influential people and was an immediate unqualified success. This changed the image of the cowboy forever from a low paid and often lawless day laborer to a romantic "Genuine Western Hero" and from the antagonist to the protagonist of popular fiction.


Copyright 1996-2004
Kjell Heilevang aka Marshal Halloway, SASS #3411 Regulator
Email: Phone & Voicemail: 1-720- 258-1258