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History of Straw hats & Felt hats - Panama hats

History of Straw hats and Felt hats  - Franklin RooseveltGenuine Panama hats are crafted as they always have been in Ecuador, a South American country that once shipped its exportable wares to the Isthmus of Panama. In the mid 1800s, the hats were picked up by gold seekers crossing the isthmus overland as they rushed to and from California. During the Spanish American War, in 1898, the U.S. government bought some 50,000 of these hats for the troops from merchants in Panama. Add to that the hat's popularity with the crews that constructed the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, well, it's a wonder that anyone knows them as Ecuador hats.

To understand how a Panama hat zigzags from an outpost just south of the equator to the gleaming window of a New York haberdashery is to understand how the world works. The trail begins in Cadeate, a coastal village in Ecuador's Guayas province. For five days in every lunar cycle, they harvest toquilla (Carludovica palmata), the ten-foot-tall, palmlike wild plant from which the Panama hat is woven.

The straw cutters schedule their monthly harvest for the five days after the moon reaches its waning quarter, when, Vicuna explains, the straw holds less moisture and thus is lighter, easier to cut, and more pliable to weave. Wielding machetes, they harvest the slender new four-foot-high stalks, each containing the tightly wrapped fingers of one growing frond. The village council imposes a daily quota of 1,200 stalks per family; the harvest is brought back by mule and truck. The outer sheath of each stalk is stripped away, and the inner fingers are split and separated, leaving dozens of yard-long, ribbonlike strands attached to the leaf stem. The prepared stalk is tossed into a vat of boiling water for about an hour and then hung on a clothesline to dry.

The straw gets trucked east to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest and most industrialized city, and then to Cuenca, a town in the Andes that is at the center of hat production.

You've surely seen famous men such as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, or Franklin Roosevelt above donning them, in photos or perhaps on film. Whatever the case, panama hats are as much a legend, as the powerful men who helped make them popular.

The story of this legendary hat has, I believe, a number of generations to go. Every month, on the waning quarter-moon, I think of the path this product travels from straw to sale, and if I'm wearing my Panama, I tip it toward the equator.


History of Straw hats and Felt hats furnishes enlightening detail, beginning with interesting accounts of dress hats in the early years, through the roaring 20's gangster fedoras, includes features on golf and movie celebrities' hats, and highlights some original and contemporary hatmakers.