The History of the White Hat

You’ve seen them perched on some of the world’s prettiest heads, such as Duchess of Cambridge, but Calgary’s white cowboy hat has a long history that goes back, predictably, to less pretty times, the days of the Wild West. 

The first cowboy hat was created in 1863 by John Stetson.  But he wasn’t a cowboy, he was a hat manufacturer from New Jersey who went west and noticed the cowboys’ headgear—coonskin or straw  caps—were wholly inadequate for the rough conditions.  So he went back east and started making cowboy hats.

“They’re practical especially when you’re riding a horse through trees and brush and things like that,” says Bryce Nimmo, the president of Smithbilt Hats in Calgary . “They were originally designed for shade as well as all the debrit that goes along with riding in the trees.” 

Before you could say “yahoo,” everyone was wearing cowboy hats, including Canada’s North West Mounted Police, who discovered shortly after arriving west in the 1870s that their pillbox hats weren’t going to help them restore law and order and get whiskey traders under control.

In 1919, Smithbilt got into the hat making game in Calgary, giving Stetson a run for their money, and giving Canadians a home grown option for head gear.

But it was football—not cowboys—that led to Smithbilt’s white hat taking off. 

In 1946 Smithbilt started making white cowboy hats made of Russian felt. The first hat was for Mr, Herron and he stood out in a crowd. A couple of years later, a train full of Calgary Stampeders fans headed east to cheer on their team in the Grey Cup. Most of them were wearing a Smithbilt white cowboy hat. They even gave one to the mayor of Toronto.  

And the white hat ceremony was born.

Pretty much every year since, the City of Calgary has given out thousands of hats to visiting dignitaries. “They’re getting a gift, a Smithbilt felt hat, that’s one of a kind,” says Nimmo.  “It’s a gift that means something and shows our appreciation for them coming to town.”

But Smithbilts aren’t just for special occasions or the Calgary Stampede in July.  

Just ask Nimmo:  “I wear a hat every time I go out.  I have no trouble going to a pub in October to meet my buddies and their wives wearing my hat. That’s who I am.”

Nimmo says he loves making hats to fit different heads, and personalities.  “Every customer has their own sense of style.  Some people say ‘I want a pink ribbon or I want my hat this way or that way’ and I am pleased to make a hat a guy wants to wear.”

As for women, Nimmo says some are reluctant to wear a hat because they feel “the hat wears them.” The trick, he says, is to reduce the size of the brim for the ladies.

Nimmo always takes his hat off at dinner, always places it upside down “to keep the shape” and always tips his hat when he meets a woman.

As for the inevitable hat head, Nimmo says “Who cares if you have a ring around your hair?” He advises wearing your hat and your hat head with pride.

Visit Smithbilt Hats in Calgary at 1103 12th Street SE or see their hats online HERE

 

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