Dear Straight Dope:
Why did cowboy hats come in "gallon" sizes? I assume that a "10 gallon hat" wouldn't hold 10 gallons of water. What gives?
Mike "Elvis" Karnowski
Since I got some cowboy roots (my dad went to high school with Tony Lama in El Paso), I’ll handle this. I went to a meeting recently with some New Mexico Department of Agriculture livestock inspectors, and all of ’em had cowboy hats. These are guys who get away with this, and they call me ma’am. It was intriguing to observe the etiquette of correct cowboy hat wearage–and tippage–throughout the day at this meeting.
According to the Shepler’s Cowboy Hat Guide: “When you take off your cowboy hat, always place it crown down (upside down). Otherwise the brim can begin to straighten and that will ruin the look of the hat.” Sure enough, the ag guys all set their hats under their chairs, on their crowns.
More from Shepler: “Do not interfere with anyone else’s cowboy hat. A hat is a prized, personal possession, and should be treated with respect.”
On a bet, I once crawled under the table in the college dining hall and stole a cowboy hat from under the chair of an Argentinian guy who lived in my dorm. Not funny. Murderous rage would be putting it lightly. Do not try this at home.
Back to the question. The Stetson company and Texas Bix Bender (who wrote Hats and the Cowboys Who Wear Them) say that "ten-gallon" refers to how much liquid (certainly not brains) such hats could carry in their crowns. This story is wrong. John Batterson Stetson (1830-1906), who is sometimes credited with inventing the cowboy hat, was from New Jersey. ‘Nuff said. You’ll also find the myth that ten-gallon hat referred to the unit of capacity in The Cowboy Encyclopedia by Dr. Richard W. Slatta. Slatta is from North Carolina. Uh huh.
So here is la pura verdad: "Ten-gallon hat" is the result of a linguistic mix-up. "Galón" is the Spanish word for "braid." Some vaqueros wore as many as ten braided hatbands on their sombreros, and those were called "ten galón hats." English speakers heard gallon. Real cowboy hats came to Texas from the Spanish via Mexico (unless you want to go all the way back to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian horsemen, who apparently wore something similar).
Stewart, who runs a hat store in my town, showed me an astonishing array of cowboy hats varying in brim size and bend, top creases and crown size. The biggest ones are 7 inches high, and–sorry, Stewart–they are way goofy-looking. About the only guys I could see wearing these would be those nerds who re-enact gunfights in Old Town. Stewart wouldn’t let me pour water into a hat, so we used anasazi pinto beans to discover that the largest-crowned cowboy hat would carry less than 4 gallons. Stewart says the tall-crowned hats became popular when movie stars of B-Westerns in the 20s and 30s wore them to make themselves look taller (Tom Mix was only 5’6").
Like many people (except those dreamy livestock inspectors), I like cowboy hats but look terrible in them myself. I’ve only started wearing a cowboy hat again recently, because my children are finally old enough to be mortified by how I look in one, so I get a lot of mileage out of it.
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