A Dying Wish Produced an American Icon
There was no sugarcoating it: John was going to die. Sooner rather than later.
Difficult as that diagnosis was to hear, it was doubly hard for a young man. John was in his 20s, barely an adult. Now his life was about to end just as it was beginning.
With his lungs giving out and his strength weakening, John did some serious thinking. The seventh of 12 children, he was a hat maker in New Jersey, a trade he had learned at his father’s side. But with his days numbered, John didn’t want to waste them working in a hat shop.
What he really wanted was to see the West, that fabled land everybody was talking about. So he headed off to the boisterous young city of St. Joseph, Missouri on the banks of the Missouri River across from Kansas Territory. In those days, St. Joe bordered the Frontier.
Despite his weakness, John landed a job in a brickyard. He quickly became a partner in it. His prospects looked bright. Then the Missouri River flooded, washing away both the bricks and John’s livelihood.
The Civil War had just begun, so John tried enlisting in the Union Army. When it was discovered he had tuberculosis Uncle Sam said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Fate sometimes silently creeps up on cats feet. So it was for John. Gold had just been discovered in Colorado Territory and St. Joe outfitted wagon trains headed for Pike’s Peak. Folks in one of them asked John to join their party. With nothing better to do, he jumped at the invitation.
Then a strange thing happened: the farther west the wagons rolled, and the higher the elevation grew, the better John felt. By the time he was breathing fresh Rocky Mountain air, the tuberculosis had mysteriously disappeared.
John didn’t strike it rich in Colorado’s gold fields. Yet he did find his fortune there.
He was fascinated by everything he saw in this unsettled land and he studied the pioneers closely. Being a hatter by trade, he paid particular attention to their headgear. And he wasn’t impressed by what he saw.
Settlers wore a wide array of hats. The brims were too short to shelter them from the sun. Those made of fur, such as coonskin caps, attracted fleas. And when it rained, they all leaked. A new type of hat was needed for this new land, and John decided to make it.
He used fur-felt (eventually settling on beaver) and formed it into a shape that addressed western needs. Most impressive of all, it was waterproof.
Word of John’s creation spread through the mining camps. Soon men were showing up, asking to try it on. One day a tough looking horseman offered a $5 gold piece for the new hat. John took it – and realized he had stumbled upon a very good thing.
He hurried back East in 1865, borrowed $60 from his sister and added it to the $40 he had saved. With $100 seed money, he rented an upstairs room in Philadelphia and bought tools. He also ordered $10 in beaver fur. Then he began manufacturing his novel hat.
It was an immediate success. He marketed it as the Boss of the Plains. The more hats he produced, and the more people saw them, the more demand grew.
Soon, the revolutionary topper John created came to be know by the name we call it today: the Cowboy Hat.
John B. Stetson pioneered more than hat designs. Back then, hatters were looked down on as lazy, shiftless, unreliable people who drifted from job to job. Exposure to mercury often caused mental problems, leading to the old saying “mad as a hatter.” Stetson, a pious Baptist, insisted on improving conditions for his workers.
He made sure his Philadelphia factory was clean and safe. He built a hospital, parks and houses for his employees and founded a YMCA branch. The John B. Stetson Company’s factory kept expanding, ultimately growing to 25 large buildings on nine acres. By 1915, its 5,400 person staff was turning out 3.3 million hats every year.
The name Stetson became synonymous with hats. There’s not enough space here to list all the famous people who’ve worn them over the years. Almost every western movie star favored Stetsons. Several U.S. presidents were big fans (especially Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson). The Texas Rangers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) wore them for over a century.
And of course, it’s impossible to imagine the greatest cowboy of all wearing anything but a Stetson.
As his personal wealth increased, so did Stetson’s generosity. He helped finance the creation of Temple University and established Stetson University, along with Florida’s first law school. In 1878 he founded the Sunday Breakfast and Rescue Mission, which is still assisting needy Philadelphians today.
John B. Stetson suffered a stroke in 1906 while bathing in his 8,000 square foot Florida mansion, fell and hit his head, dying at age 75. He survived his terminal diagnosis by almost 50 years – and outlived the doctor who made it, too.
Not bad for a dying man who thought, “I have a better idea.”
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