Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Hat that Won the West Might Surprise You

An image hangs on my mother’s wall. A young girl in a cowboy vest sits on a spotted pony, a six-shooter by her side. Freckles dust her nose, and her wide smile reveals a missing front tooth. The cowboy hat perched on her head fails to suppress a riot of blond ringlets. When I posed for that picture, I could count my age in single digits. Although it’s been a while since that moment, memory returns me to it in vivid color. The heat forces the photographer into the dappled shade on the side of the house. He reaches for me, but I back away. My mother tells me that it’s all right to let him lift me. The saddle is warm from the sun. The chin strap of the cowboy hat chafes my tender skin as I transform into a cowgirl riding the range.

At seven, I was already in love with the western mythos. I suppose that was only natural for a daughter of the American West. I began life in Stockton, California—a location made famous by “the Big Valley” television show. Tumbleweeds, sagebrush, rodeos, and powwows were a usual part of life. Never mind wooden acting and bad camera angles that betrayed feinted punches, vintage western movies captured my rapt attention. I had no inkling at seven that I would one day write the historical romance novels that would inspire my search for the true Wild West.
Western movies made even dust storms seem romantic. When one caught me by surprise while walking home from school, it stiffened my hair with grit. Maybe that was when it sank in that frontier living wasn’t so glamorous. Curiosity took me to ghost towns, museums, gold fields, and vintage hotels. My research also focused me on pioneer diaries and other original accounts. I found some interesting contradictions. Take, for example, the hat that won the West. We all know which one that was, right? Not so fast.

The John B. Stetson Company patented the first cowboy hat in 1865. The “Boss of the Plains” featured a high crown and wide brim but didn’t much resemble the cowboy hat of today. At the time, the sun was setting on Oregon Trail emigration and rising on the cowboy era.

"Boss of the Plains" image courtesy of GoldTrader CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Cattlemen were slow to adopt the Stetson. Some questioned its practicality, since the wind could snatch the wide-brimmed hat away. It was hard to justify shelling out between $5 and $30 dollars, which represented a whole lot of cash to someone making $10 to $15 dollars a month. Besides, most cowboys already owned a good hat. They wore a variety of styles, from slouch hats to top hats, but favored one in particular.

Public domain image from between 1880 and 1910, showing seven cowboys at a chuck wagon. Can you spot the hat most are wearing?

The bowler (also called a bob hat, billy coke, billycock, bombin, and derby) originated in England. In 1849, Edward Coke, younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, requested that Lock & Co. of St James's design a close-fitting hard hat with a low crown. Coke wanted to protect his gamekeepers from low-hanging branches. This resulted in a durable and inexpensive hat that had stood the test of time.

Cowboys weren’t the only western men who favored bowlers. Vintage pictures show businessmen and other townsfolk wearing them. They covered the heads of lawmen and outlaws alike, including Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and Billy the Kid.

Bat Masterson; Library of Congress image; no known restrictions on publication
Who wore Stetsons, then? Those with the means to buy a hat that cost four times more than a bowler—Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, Will Rogers, and Annie Oakley, to name a few. And yes, cowboys eventually came around, but not until the end of the 19th century, when the Wild West era was near its end.
Butch Cassidy (far right) and the Wild Bunch; circa 1900; public domain image
Which hat won the West? The answer varies, depending on who you ask. Stetson hat sellers tend to further the Western mythos, while others refute this. The Ripley website claims that early cowboys favored the bowler. Plenty of early pictures show just that. Differences aside, let’s just say that a case can be made for the humble bowler.

What’s New With Janalyn Voigt

“I’m trying to arrange my life so I don’t have to show up,” an actor (whose identity I’ve forgotten) quipped in a television interview. While the audience laughed, I thought it was a great idea. I’ve tried to automate my existence as much as possible, ever since. Harnessing the power of routines, rosters, and daily habits helped mindless tasks go by. It annoyed me that I could never quite achieve a perfectly-running schedule. People kept intruding. My daughter begged me to go thrift-store shopping, my husband wanted to go hiking, or my mother called to chat when I should be doing something else. Catastrophes struck. The refrigerator broke down, I put my toe out of joint, wildfire smoke prohibited me from working in the garden. Writing deadlines limited my time. The morning after you are up until midnight or later to turn a manuscript in on time, it's hard to spring from bed at 6 AM.

I’ve finally admitted defeat. Schedules, to-do lists, and goals help focus my efforts, but life is a work-in-progress. We’re not meant to live by rote, and that’s a good thing.

Note: instead of reading the same author bio each month, regular readers might like a current update. If you're new or just want to know more about me as an author and the books I write, the welcome mat is out at the Janalyn Voigt website.

About Montana Gold

While researching the Montana Gold series, I uncovered some interesting questions. Although several found answers, for others the truth is buried on boot hill. In those cases, I relied on logic and probability to paint the truest image of the Wild West in the Montana Gold books. Learn more about Montana Gold.


  1. Thank you for this post. I didn't know that the bowler hat was so popular and that the Stetson had to win over the cowboys. I would have loved to see your photo, but I sure do understand you not putting it here!

    1. Hi, Connie. My mother still has that photo, but if I get hold of a copy, I'd love to post it for you. :)

  2. I recently moved to Oklahoma and have visited The Cowboy and Western museum twice. There is an entire room dedicated to cowboy hats. They have dates and areas of the country they were worn. The bowler is only one among many shown. The Stetson came in a variety of styles too. Loved your post and enjoyed getting to know you better.

    1. What an interesting museum. Oklahoma is the old "Indian Territory," so its nice to find relics from the West there. Thanks for commenting to say hello.

  3. Great post for those of us writing 19th-century historicals. Thanks Janalyn!