What Stetson didn't make during the cattle-drive era was a 10-gallon hat. The big, tall, wide cowboy hat of the movies had its origin in this century. The Colonel McCoy was first made in 1925 (one source) or 1910 (another source). Max J. Meyer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, made a hat with a 9' crown and 6" brim for movie star Tim McCoy. It's spectacular, but not a 19th century cowboy hat.
Stetson Col. McCoy-1910 or 1925 depending on the source. 9" crown, 6" brim, designed for movie star Ken McCoy. (I See By Your Outfit)
I've also been unable to find any pre-1899 hats with a "Gus" or "Tom Mix" crease, but virtually every SASS member owns at least one. I have more than one myself. I did find one, and only one, so far, photo taken in 1899 of Texas Rangers that shows a "Gus" crease, and an 1896 Ranger photo that might show one. It's hard to tell.
Most 19th century photographs that show the hat don't show an intentional crease at all. Most hats were kept open crown. If you're wearing a Boss of the Plains with a 4-1/2" crown you can't crease it much. There won't be room for your head. The top can be telescoped a bit (pushed down in the middle), but not like a commercial telescope hat now that starts with a 6" or higher crown. If you pick it up by the crown continually you'll put two dents in the front and possibly one on top. The dent or crease in the top won't be very deep because, again, your head gets in the way. (If you did that to a 6" crown hat eventually you would have a "Gus" crease.)
Brims weren't rolled extensively then. Study enough photographs and you'll see a lot of "hand rolled" brims, meaning brims rolled by constant handling, not by intent to shape for style. A right handed man would roll the brim on the right side if he picked it up a lot by the brim.
James Gillett, Sergeant, Texas Rangers, 1878. He wore a 6" crowned Stetson with random dents and a hand rolled brim. Texas Artist Tom Lea interpreted this to be a "Gus" crease that would look at home in a 1920's movie, but it probably wasn't.
Anyway, cowboys wore hats for maximum sun protection. That meant wide, flat brims. Modern cowboys roll the brims so they can fit four across in a pickup truck.
Cowboys wanted flat brims. They put lacing in brims when they collapsed or "flopped," in order to stiffen them. Brand names for knife edged stiff brims such as "Never Flop" indicated people wanted stiff, functional brims.
what we now call the Montana Peak was popular in the old west. This one sports brim lacing. Hats subject to hard use would lose their shape, and the brims would sag and flop. Cowboys laced leather through the edges of the brim to stiffen it. This caught on with manufacturers, mostly of cheaper hats. It was popular with Dudes on new hats. So if your well-worn, distressed hat has brim-lacing, you're a working cowboy. If your new hat does, you're a dude.
Not all hats were 4-1/2" crowns and 4" brims, but most were. The 1895 Montgomery Wards Catalog and the 1897 Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalog are full of cowboy hats. Most of them have 4-1/2" crowns and 4" brims, no matter what their name. Even the "Pine Ridge Sombrero," a Sears Stetson we would call a Montana Peak, had a 4" brim and a 4-1/2" crown. It also sported as stiff, knife edge "Never Flop" brim.
Sears sold a Montana Peak as a "Pine Ridge Sombrero." The crown was 4-1/2" and the brim 4", as most hats in the Sears and Wards catalogs were. It came only in belly nutria and retailed for $3.00.
The biggest pre-1900 hat I could find was the "Texan Chief", a Sears "high crown Mexican style sombrero hat" with a 5" brim and a 6" crown. It came with "Montana Peak" styled dents in the crown. The brim was a "Never Flop".
Sears sold, in 1897, one hat with a tall crown, 6-1/2", and wide brim, 5", the "Texan Chief." It sported a flat "Never Flop" brim and came only in belly nutria and sold for $5.25.
The Sears Stetson "Dakota" had a rounded 5-1/2" brim and a rolled 3-1/2" brim in 1897.
The Sears Stetson Dakota, 1897, sported a 5-1/2" crown and a 3-1/2" raw edge brim with a rolled edge. (1897 Sears catalog)
The famous photo of Texas Ranger Camp Roberts, taken in 1878 gives good insight to what people really wore. All of the hats looked very worn. Most were shapeless from years of hard, all weather use. Most looked like they had 4-5" crowns and 3-4" brims-with one major exception.
One of the rangers looks like Colonel McCoy. He has a wide-brimmed, tall crowned hat. It has a dent in the front, no neat Gus crease, though. He looks so far ahead of his time I assume he's wearing a Ruger Vaquero, too.
Camp Roberts, 1878. Most of the hats were well worn and shapeless, but the ranger on the left in the foreground stands out with a sombrero dented and curled to predate the Col. McCoy by 32 years. If you've got to wear a wide-brimmed, tall crowned hat and want to be authentic, this is an authentic 19th century hat.
His hat probably started life as a sombrero and developed some use dents and creases.
I looked at Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington's paintings. For "A Dash for the Timbers" Remington had a friend buy up a lot of gear from working cowboys and send it to his studio. Thus his gear was right on. The hats were windblown Boss of the Plains, Montana Peaks, and Mexican Sombreros.
Russell's "In Without Knocking" shows mostly open crowned 6" crown, 4" brim flat brimmed hats, one Montana Peak with a 3" brim.
Charlie Russell's hat is in a museum, and Rand Hats makes a replica, 5" crown, 3-1/8" rolled brim. It has handling dents in the crown, but no attempt at styling dents or creases. It sports a fancy hatband. A lot of the hatbands visible in 19th century photographs were fancy. It's quite likely that cowboys sought individuality through hatbands rather than styling creases and dents.
This is a replica of cowboy artist Charlie Russell's hat, a Boss of the Plains with a 5" crown and 3-1/8" brim with a pencil roll. It has handling dents in the crown, The hatband is braided horsehair, and it sports a skull hatpin. This is more typical of working cowboy hats than nearly any movie hats. (Courtesy Rand Hats).
In the Dodge City Peace Commission photograph, Wyatt Earp is shown wearing a Boss of the Plains with a 5" crown and a 3-1/8" brim. In Tombstone Kurt Russell wears a hat with a 6" crown and 5" brim.
The famous photograph of the Dodge City Peace Commission. Wyatt Earp is in the front row, 2nd from left. Luke Short is 2nd from the left in the back row. Third from the left is Bat Masterson. Only one wide-brimmed hat is in the picture. But these were townies in suits, not working cowboys.
This is the hat Wyatt Earp wore in the movie Tombstone (Courtesy Golden West Western Wear)
But this is the hat Wyatt Earp wore in the Dodge City Peace Commission photo. (Courtesy Golden West Western Wear)
By 1890 the Rangers had cleaned up, and most of them wore well-shaped Boss of the Plains hats. Be a little suspicious of the second guy from our left in the back row, though. That's a Cimarron '73 and a Golden West Western Wear hat. Capt. Baylor joined that company in 2003. (Photo manipulation by Major Photography).
Regional variations occurred. More Texans were likely to wear Mexican sombreros, both felt and straw, than Montana cowboys. They needed the sun protection, and tall crowns are cooler. A photo exists of Texas Ranger Captain John Hughes wearing a felt sombrero, appropriate for west Texas. Another photo shows 2 rangers wearing straw sombreros. At one point Stetson sent crowns and brims to Mexico to make fancy sombreros for wealthy Mexicans. These had 10" crowns and 8" brims. When finished they were ornately decorated with gold and silver thread, 3" on the brim and hatband. These were popular from 1880 to 1915.
Captain Hughe's Texas Ranger company, 1894. Most of his men were wearing Boss of the Plains, but Captain Hughes wore a flat brimmed felt sombrero.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, 1900-Bill's hat has almost a modern cattleman style to it. But his troopers sport open crowns or Montana Peak hats and relatively flat brims.
A rare (now) Stetson Sombrero. Stetson made crowns in Philadelphia and sent them to Mexico for ornate trim. This one sports an 8" brim and a 10" crown and 3" of gold and silver thread on brim and hatband. This style was popular 1880-1915.
Montgomery Wards had sombreros in their catalog as early as 1881. The "Chief Moses" first appeared in 1895. It's the prototype of the modern cowboy hat, 4" brim and tall, round 6" crown. The photos I have show it as open crowned, but you could make it into a modern hat with a steam kettle. You couldn't make a Boss of the Plains into a modern hat.
Sears "Chief Moses," 1903. Style dates to 1895 Montgomery Wards catalog. 6" crown, 4" brim, precursor to modern cowboy hat. (I See By Your Outfit)
Most of our hats are way too nice. A photo of the Matador Land and Cattle Company shows a company of cowboys, and their hats range from a bowler, a new looking Boss of the Plains, to a series of 6" open crown hats with various dents and stains to several totally shapeless hats with stains and holes. Gabby Hayes could have taken one of them for his model. A cowboy would replace his hat when he lost it or wore it completely out.
Matador Land and Cattle, Texas, 1891. Note open crowns, flat brims, a couple of hand-rolled brims, and one hat shaped by sleeping on it as a pillow.
More Matador Land and Cattle showing varying brim and crown dimensions and one Gabby Hayes styled hat.
To make your hat look authentic some suggestions:
Start with a Boss of the Plains style hat or an open crowned hat. Stay away from modern colors. "Belly Nutria," "Natural" (Sahara), "Drab", or black were the main colors. One Sears hat was advertised as "Side Nutria."
A movie hat that's accurate. This is the Ike Clanton by Knudsen Hats. It's a bent-up Boss of the Plains. The crown is soft, so it'll change shape every time you wear it. Of course, this one is too clean, too fresh. It should be heavily distressed. Our hats are far too nice for the average 19th century cowboy.
The brim should be flat or look like it started flat and got out of shape. Dents in the crown should be random.
If appropriate, the hat should be distressed. Unless you're trying to look when your character just got new duds in Cheyenne, the hat should have stains, dirt, dust, even mud on it.
Wyoming cowboy in winter. If the hat spent the winter shaped like this, what shape was it in come spring? Think about that next time you put on your new $500, pristine, custom hat shaped just right.
Or you could just wear a hat worn by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Robert Duvall. It's a fantasy sport.
Captain Baylor's Ranger Camp