The Strange History Of Why We Call Them 10 Gallon Hats

Anyone who has seen an old cowboy film has almost certainly laid eyes on a large, broad-brimmed hat with a high rounded crown. This “10 gallon hat” has been the distinguishing characteristic of the traditional North American cowboy. 

The hat’s date of origin is not known precisely, but historians suspect it originated circa 1925. There are several theories about the actual hat’s origins and its name. The name implies that the hat can hold 10 gallons of liquid content. This is the most sensible and conventional explanation for the name. However, the hat’s liquid holding capacity isn’t and never has been anywhere 10 gallons.

Two Men Wearing 10-Gallon Hats

Why is it called a 10 Gallon Hat?

Most historians have concluded that the “10 gallon” aspect of the hat’s name had nothing to do with the volume of water it could hold. Instead, it is a linguistic misinterpretation.

In Spanish, the term ‘galon’ refers to a braid. The hat’s brim has braids that surround it. Most hats had ten braids or ‘galons.’ This led people to begin referring to them as a “10-gallon hat” by English speakers. 

Of course, there are other popular interpretations. One theory maintains that people intended the 10-gallon for the upper class, while the lower class wore the sombrero.

Interestingly, the Spanish expression “tan galan” stands for “so gallant.” This fact lends more credence that “tan galan” got Americanized to “ten-gallon” to represent upper-class cowboys. 

So who invented the cowboy hat? The credit commonly goes to the owner of one of the world’s largest hat firms, the John B. Stenson Company. John B. Stenson founded his company in 1865 and designed the hats that would become a widely recognized symbol of the American West.

So closely tied is Stenson to the cowboy hat that while there are many Western brands globally, his is the most recognized.

Men and women from all walks of life wore ten-gallon hats. It has topped the heads of ordinary citizens, respected professionals, and even presidents.

The hat has also become a source of dichotomy in Westerns. White hats represented the “good guys,” while black cowboy hats were a way to establish characters as villains. 

Many notable musicians are known for their cowboy hat-wearing look. Some people are nearly unrecognizable without them, like Sam Elliot and Tim McGraw. Likewise, many actors, both from classic western movies and television, like Dallas’s Larry Hagman and “Lone Ranger”s Clayton Moore.

Even more mainstream actors like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Houston are known to wear them. Even President Lyndon B Johnson made public appearances wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Though they were invented over a century and a half ago, Western hats remain popular and stylish today. The materials they are comprised of have been expanded to include leather and straw. Hat makers, including the still operational Stetson Hat Company, continue developing new variations and styles of the cowboy hat to this day.

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