In 1830, John Batterson Stetson was born in East Orange, New Jersey. His father, Stephen Stetson was a successful hatter who ran the No Name Hat Company. The company was known for their superior quality hats and John B. learned the trade as a child. One of thirteen siblings, however, John B. was not likely to inherit the business.
In the early 1860’s John B. decided to try his luck and venture to Pike’s Peak to seek a fortune in gold. Sleeping in the rough wilderness, John used primitive felting techniques to create water repellent blankets and the first hat to protect him from the elements. This was the original “Boss of the Plains”; a Western hat that would become the cornerstone of Stetson’s hating business and still in production today (see photo).
John B. Stetson’s unsuccessful search for gold resulted in his idea to start hat manufacturing upon his return to Philadelphia in 1865. With only $60 dollars loaned to him by his older sister Louisa, he purchased tools and fur, rented a small room and took on two workers. To differentiate his products from the competition, he sent a “Boss of the Plains” hat to each South-Western dealer with a letter asking for an order of a dozen. By the early twentieth century, Stetson owned the world’s largest hat factory.
In 1877, the first orders from overseas arrived. In 1899, about 2800 retailers throughout America were selling Stetson hats. The company employed close to 1200 workers. 50,000 dozen hats were produced that year. Notable people who wore Stetson hats in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries included Colonel William F. Cody “Buffalo Bill”, Calamity Jane, Will Rogers and Annie Oakley.
In 1906, at the age of 76, John B. Stetson died, but he left his mark as a humanitarian. Many of his initiatives were significantly ahead of his time. Stetson was concerned with the welfare of his employees and many of his initiatives, e.g. education and the initiation of company health care, were "firsts" in the hat industry; some in any industry. Despite John B.’s death, the company continued to prosper; by 1915, the factory included 25 buildings and employed 5,400 people, who produced 3,336,000 hats annually.
In the early part of the 20th century the top hat, bowler, homburg fedora and trilby were the most popular styles and remained so up to WWI. Pictured are three of the most popular Stetsons of the year 1916.
Stetson began making personalized hats for Senators and Presidents; a tradition that still continues to this day. Stetsons were a firm favorite of Tom Mix – Hollywood’s first Cowboy superstar. Tom Mix not only wore Stetson hats, he even carried a dozen of them when travelling internationally. He gave them to officials and dignitaries he met. Stetson named a hat after him in honor of his role as unofficial brand ambassador.
The Stetson Company began producing women’s hats in 1930. The selection included the Cheviot beret as well as the pillboxes and tricornes styles. In the summer months and for outdoor activities, women preferred classic styles like the Cloche.
In the 1940’s, the Stetson line was composed of straw boaters, panamas, trilbys, snap brims and a myriad of ladies hats. Post-war prosperity meant you had to have a hat to get ahead and a Stetson was the hat. Hollywood was no exception where familiar figures like Gene Autry, James Dean, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were some of the most visible Stetson wearers.
In the late 1950’s, there was a crisis in the headwear industry. Men stopped wearing hats regularly. When the newly elected President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation hatlessly in 1960, it was clear that hat wearing went from a “must” to an optional accessory. A lot of hatters went bankrupt; STETSON survived as the cowboy hat.
Hat sales continued to decline in the swinging 1960’s. But some diehards stayed true to hats. Frank Sinatra, the King of Swing is quoted as saying “I never take my hat off in public”, it’s not surprising when the hat is a Stetson.
In 1970, Stetson converted from a manufacturer to a licensing company and closed the factory permanently. It was the beginning of a new era. Fueled by hit movies such as Indiana Jones and Urban Cowboy, the hat business grew in the 1980’s and 90’s led by consumer demand for Western styles.
In 1998, FWS became the exclusive distributer for Stetson headwear in Europe and the official licensee shortly thereafter.
2009, Stetson launched “Stetson Rocks”, an outstanding collaboration with diverse, authentic musicians, who represent the many looks of STETSON style. The collaboration culminated in a CD called “Stetson Rocks”.
Stetson has been involved in sports since 2015. In addition to the German Ice Hockey League’s Kölner Haie, the German Football League’s Cologne Crocodiles is one of the company’s sports partners. The collaboration also includes exclusive hat and cap designs by Stetson.