Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ten Gallons of Myths for One Iconic Cowboy Hat

By Heather Blanton
No one wore a ten-gallon hat like the Duke.

Let’s talk hats. Not just any hat. The fabled ten-gallon cowboy hat. Where did the name come from? What is it exactly? Is it just a big Stetson?

Here’s what we know. Generally speaking, any cowboy hat that has a tall, rounded crown and broad brim fits the description. The phrase was brought into popular culture by Hollywood and famous cowboy actors like Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Probably around 1925. The name, however, existed before then.

So where did it come from? Interestingly, there are two Spanish terms that could be the culprit. First, galón—the word for galloon, or the narrow, braided trim that ran around the crown of a type of vaquero’s hat. Sounds awfully close to gallon, right? And these Spanish hats were tall enough to accommodate ten regular hat bands, like those worn on an American cowboy’s hat.

Early example of a vaquero and his hat.

The crown on an average Stetson was only 4”. Hmmm. Sounds to me like a cowpoke was having a little fun at a vaquero’s expense: “Looky there at that tall hat, Slim.” Texas Pete tags his companion in the shoulder and points at a vaquero moseying through the smoky saloon. “I reckon he’s got room up there for ten galóns.”

Another possibility—and the one I find more likely—is the simple Americanization of the phrase tan galán. Loosely translated, it means gallant, handsome, fine-looking, even expensive. If the Spanish cowboys were going around referring to their hats as tan galán compared to the American cowboys’ simple, flat-brimmed Stetsons—well, with men, everything is a competition. It’s not much of a stretch to see where the nickname could have easily gotten its start. Especially once the U.S. hat manufacturers started turning out fancier styles. Stetson and some others designed some pretty, uh, understated hats. Not.
Tom Mix -- arguably the first to sport the white hat of the good guy.

I can just hear the argument:

“Mine is a tan galán hat, señor.”

“No way, Juan. Mine is a ten-gallon hat.”

Juan blinks. “Uh, si, señor, if you say so.”

Reminds me of Hoss Cartwright's hat.

Now those hats have some tall crowns!

Pretty much no one thinks the term started with a hat that could hold ten gallons of water. True, the early cowboy hats were made from beaver, tightly woven—especially the Stetsons—which made them ideal for wet conditions. It is a fact a man could give his horse some water from his hat without ruining it (long as it was beaver). But even Stetson acknowledged in the early twenties that their largest hat held only a few quarts of water.  

This myth may have come from the fact that during the civil war, a soldier’s hat was often used as a quick feedsack to hold grain for a horse.  

Maybe we'll never know, but it is fun to speculate. What do you think about the theories for the ten-gallon name?

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