Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1830, John B. Stetson had worked as a youth in his father’s hat factory. Then, in the late 1850s, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Various legends surround the next years of Stetson’s life. Perhaps the most commonly reported one is that he decided to try to regain his health in the wide open spaces and clean air out west. At this time, “the West” started in Missouri, “the Gateway State,” or, more specifically, in the town of St. Joseph, well known as the jumping-off point for all Western adventurers ever since 1804. In that year, Lewis and Clark departed from St. Joseph with their “Corps of Discovery.”
It was in St. Joseph that Stetson first settled.
Pikes Peak or bust
In the summer of 1862, with his health not yet sufficiently improved for him to serve in the Civil War, Stetson joined a party of 11 other men and headed for Pikes Peak and the gold fields of Colorado.
They did their mining out in the open air, so if a storm happened to blow in, the party constructed tents made of animal skins to provide shelter from the elements. The untanned hides were always ruined by the precipitation, and a new cover had to be lashed together each day that the storm persisted.
The sight of all the lost hides gave Stetson an idea. He decided to apply the felting process he had learned in his father’s business to devise a hat for the men to wear.
Using fur from several shaved hides, he felted a hat that was a smaller version of a Mexican sombrero. The high-crowned, wide-brimmed creation provided a well-ventilated cover that was completely waterproof and also protected the wearer’s head, face, neck and shoulders from the sun.
Mining for gold in Colorado improved Stetson’s health, but not his wealth, and after a year passed, he decided to return East to the hatmaking business he knew best.
However, as the story goes, he only got as far back as St. Joseph, where he stayed on to work in a brickyard. In short succession, he became manager and then part owner of the business. In 1865, the Missouri River flooded and carried away two years of his hard work, so Stetson once again set his sights eastward.
He arrived in Philadelphia with just $100 in his pocket for tools and fur, but it was enough for him to set up a one-room hatmaking shop.
Stetson’s timing could not have been more favorable because, even though the country’s economy was struggling to recover from the devastations of the Civil War, it was an age in which almost everyone wore hats.
A focus on quality gradually began to pay off, and soon Stetson’s business was producing large numbers of fashionable hats for Eastern gentlemen and for ladies as well. However, it was Stetson’s re-creation of a very different style hat that would be responsible for his greatest fame.
His crowning glory
The idea to mass-produce his unique line of hats came to Stetson when he recalled all the cowboys and drovers he had met on his Western adventure who were making do with the castoff headgear of previous lives and vocations, such as coonskin caps, sea captains’ hats, straw boaters and wool derbies.
He was cautioned that innovative hat designs had to come from Europe in order to be accepted, but he believed that he could be successful by making his hat of the finest, softest felt money could buy. It would be half the weight of any hat of comparable size and waterproof as well.
The hat would be crafted in the same modified sombrero style he had showed his fellow miners in Colorado, with its flat, round brim and a domed crown — a design that would remain unmodified for nearly 20 years.
Stetson was astute enough to realize that having a high-quality product was only the first requirement for success.
He hired traveling salesmen, something that had never been done in the industry before, and even sent a sample of his new creation to every dealer in the Southwest, asking for a minimum order of a dozen of what he dubbed his “Boss of the Plains” hat.
Just as he hoped, orders started to pour in. In order to produce hats in the numbers that were going to be needed, Stetson had to ensure there was a reliable workforce.
Hat trade workers of the day were notorious for being heavy drinkers with high rates of absenteeism and a tendency to drift from employer to employer. Stetson realized he needed to do whatever he could to induce loyalty and stability in the ranks, and the company policies he devised were as unprecedented as his sales methods.
He offered his employees low-rate mortgage loans for company housing and generous health care benefits. In addition, Stetson made sure that his employees had a clean, safe and efficient workplace. As soon as better hatmaking equipment became available, he would install it.
Due to these practices, Stetson’s business morphed from a one-room handcrafting operation to a factory-based, fully industrialized assembly line. As the business prospered, he offered employees shares in the company.
Over the years, Stetson continued to be forward-thinking about marketing.
Wherever there was an important exhibition, he made sure his hats were on display. He showed them at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in the summer of 1876 (while Henry DeLand had been home in Fairport dreaming of a planned community in Persimmon Hollow), and subsequently in the Paris Exposition of 1879, where they won numerous awards.
Arguably his most effective advertising campaign was one that told the story of a cowboy whose canteen sprang a leak while he was crossing a dry stretch of prairie. The man was able to save the remainder of his water supply by catching it in his waterproof Stetson hat.
Stetson blanketed the market with colorful depictions of a cowboy watering his horse directly from his upside-down “Boss of the Plains” headgear.
The degree of success that Stetson’s business practices achieved can be measured by the fact that the term “Stetson” entered the language as a generic eponym for all “cowboy hats” of this design.
“Stetson hats” became familiar icons of American culture. Buffalo Bill and every cast member of his Wild West Show, including the idolized female sharpshooter Annie Oakley, all wore them.
Yet the “Boss of the Plains” style hat wasn’t just for cowboys. Farmers, law-enforcement officers and U.S. Cavalry soldiers all wore them. Robert Baden-Powell even adopted the hat for use by the Boy Scouts.
By 1886, Stetson’s hat factory was said to be the largest in the world, and he came to DeLand searching for a place to establish a winter residence in Florida.