first published in The Cowboy Chronicle, April 2004)

A real Boss of the Plains (Cowboys and Trappings of the Old West)

Authenticity isn't required in SASS. SASS started with guys emulating movie westerns, not the real old west. You can still dress as a movie character or just as a figment (or a fig newton if you don't like mints) of your own imagination. You can also wear a new Resistol Cattleman hat, work shirt, modern Wrangler jeans, and roper boots, and no one will ever keep you from shooting. You can also spend a lot of time and effort being authentic and lose the costume contest for "Best Law Dawg" to a German Shepherd with a bandana and a badge.

You dress authentically because you want to.

Many a SASS shooter has come to the line looking pretty authentic because he got boots, trousers, shirt, vest, and wild rag from our vendors and came pretty close to looking right-except for his hat. Most SASS shooters wear 20th century hat designs. They think their hats are authentic because they saw John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or Robert Duvall wearing it in a movie.

Let's go in search of the real cowboy hat.

Most SASS members know John B. Stetson invented the cowboy hat in 1865. He made one hat at the time, with a wide 4" brim and low 4" to 4-1/2" crown, flat on the top, rounded edges. It was made of good quality materials, fur felt, not wool, with a satin lining and sheepskin or lambskin sweatband. He called it the Boss of the Plains. These hats made the company. But by 1872 the Boss of the Plains was less than 20% of the company's sales. They sold all kinds and shapes of dress hats for city folks.

We'll come back to Stetson. What else did they wear?

They wore Planters hats, beehives, bowlers, sombreros, caps, whatever they had.

Pre-Boss of the Plains hats

A frontiersman in 1860 wears a planter's hat, fancy vest, tie, wool pants, and buckskin coat

A beehive, a common pre-Stetson hat that continued to be popular. (Courtesy Clearwater Hats) Note this is how it looked new. It would become shapeless pretty soon.


A derby, another pre-Stetson hat that survived throughout the old west. Many variations of derbies existed (Courtesy Clearwater Hats)

A Boss of the Plains with a rolled and curled brim. (Courtesy Clearwater Hats)


A Planter's or plantation hat. These came with wide and narrow brims (Courtesy Clearwater Hats)

The Plainsman style predated the Boss of the Plains and could still be in photographs taken in the 1890s (Courtesy Clearwater Hats)


There is a photograph of Pony Express rider Frank Webner taken in 1861. He's wearing a hat with a tall 6" open, rounded crown, and a wide 4" flat brim. He looks like an after-the-Civil War cowboy. For that matter, he looks like a cowboy any time before 1930 or so. The hat looks so much like a 20th century Stetson if the photo wasn't in the National Archives, I'd assume it's misdated. I'm not sure it isn't.

Pony Express rider Frank Webner,1861. He's wearing a hat with a tall 6" open, rounded crown, and a wide 4" flat brim

This picture was obtained from the National Archives. Despite such provenance, it's unlikely it was taken in 1861. 1881 is more likely, making the Pony Express claim impossible. When you can't trust the National Archives...


Stetson's Boss of the Plains initially came in one grade (2 oz.) and one color, natural. A leather strap acted as a band (sometimes over the standard 12-ligne grosgrain hatband. It sold for $5. $5 for a cowboy who made $20-30 a month was a lot. $30 for an all beaver hat was enough to make it "Fit for a cattle king or bandit king," as John King Fisher's brown beaver hat was described. Even then the bandit king owned only one, and that one was returned to his widow several years later when the reformed ex-bandit was murdered in San Antonio.

Two Dudes in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1885 bought new duds and had their pictures taken. This is what Boss of the Plains looked like brand new. They also have identical lace-up shirts with turn-down collars and Cheyenne style gunleather. The Dude on our left is wearing Levi's. (Packing Iron)




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