John B. Stetson in the Gilded Age: Sitting on Top of the World

Portrait of John B. Stetson by Irwin Benoni, 1895. Credit: John B. Stetson Company.

Chapter Eight

Sitting on Top of the World 

Note: This sample chapter is from the forthcoming book Stetson: An American Icon

            After conquering the West, the rapid growth of John B. Stetson & Company after 1880 propelled the company toward another accomplishment – becoming the largest hatter in the world. While there are no historic data on the number of hats sold for most of the 1880s and 1890s, available information on earnings growth sheds light on the company’s rapid ascent up the ranks of hat makers. Starting from a net annual profit of $70,136 in 1879, Stetson’s earnings more than doubled to $185,457 eight years later in 1887. 
       By 1890, profits were sharply higher at $332,624 on an estimated $1,330,000 in revenues. Based partly on those revenues and its ever-expanding factory complex, Stetson would claim in 1891 that it was the largest fur felt hat maker in the United States. In the 1898 catalogue, Stetson claimed to have the largest and most complete hat factory in the world. The company was clearly edging toward the top. To reach its goal, however, Stetson faced stiff competition from major hat makers in America and around the world. In the competition for first place, Stetson’s hat production in 1901 reached 939,000 hats, pushing it close to number one. 
         By 1907, the number of Stetson hats shipped had zoomed to 2,660,016,by which time Stetson could rightfully claim to be the world’s largest hat maker. Further cementing this claim, the February 1914 issue Moody’s Magazine identified Stetson as “the largest hat makers in the world.” Stetson’s annual production of hats peaked at 3,762,876 in 1917, as sales of campaign hats for American soldiers and officers surged after the United States entered the Great War. 

                                                   The Advent of the Fedora

To reach the top, Stetson faced a strong challenge in the 1880s when another American hat-maker beat them to the punch with the introduction of the fedora, a hat destined to become a perennial favorite. 
The name fedora comes from the play Fedora by French dramatist Victori√©n Sardou. It tells the tragic story of Russian Princess Fedora Romanoff and her star-crossed love affair with Count Loris Ipanoff, the man who killed Fedora’s fianc√© shortly before the date set for their marriage. The play debuted in Paris in 1882. The dazzling performance of international theatrical star Sarah Bernhardt assured the play would be a triumph. While some claim the inspiration for the fedora was a man’s hat worn in that play by Bernhardt, the reviews make no mention of it.
            A more likely origin of the men’s fedora hat style is tied to the October 1, 1883, American debut of Fedora starring Fanny Davenport at the Fourteenth Street Theater in New York. Edwin H. Price, Davenport’s husband and business manager, secured from Sardou in Paris the American rights to Fedora and the exclusive right for his wife to star in it. Davenport, while in Paris with her husband, had studied Bernhardt’s performance and Sardou later coached her in rehearsals in Nice, France. The New York run of the play, like the one in Paris, was a sensation and it was twice extended, leading the New York Times to call it “the most successful play of the year.” Following its New York triumph, the play was taken on the road to packed theaters around the country. 
Davenport’s co-star was English-born Robert Mantell, a manly and handsome actor who later became a renowned Shakespearean actor. Years after Fedora, some newspapers credited a hat worn by Mantell in the play as the inspiration for the fedora hat. One of those claims appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger in 1919, as follows: “The Quiz editor, our source of all miscellaneous and useless information, tells us that the fedora is named after Sardou’s drama of that name, because in that play Mr. Mantell wore a lid so comely that all men imitated it.” Historical sleuthing has not yielded any photos or drawings of Mantell in costume as Count Loris Ipanoff wearing a fedora style hat, although one photo shows him holding a top hat. In a publicity photograph card from 1903, Mantell is pictured in a jaunty pose wearing a fedora. 

Photo of actor Robert B. Mantell published in 1903. He played the part of Russian Count Loris Ipanoff in the New York production of Fedora with the play’s lead Fanny Davenport in 1883.

It was Stetson competitor Knox the Hatter of New York that seized upon the eminent opening of Fedora in New York to introduce a new style of man’s hat he called fedora on September 26, 1883 – five days before the opening of the play. Knox the Hatter was the handsome Edward Knox, a second lieutenant in the Union Army awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. In his ad for the new hat in The Sun of New York, Knox claimed his new soft felt hat was imported from France. After the opening of the play proved to be a sensation, newspaper ads around the country by retailers of men’s hats depicted the new Knox fedora style hat with a tall tapered crown. The top of the hat is flat in some the drawings. In others, a round crown has a large vertical crease front to back. Both styles had a sprightly brim with a curled edge that bowed upward on either side when viewed from the front or back. A wide grosgrain ribbon hat band completed the look. 
The new Knox fedora hat style was reminiscent of the Homburg hat that so captivated the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII of England on his annual summer visits to the thermal mineral baths in the town of Bad Homburg, Germany. Given that Americans then tended to follow hat styles from Europe, Knox was following a familiar path to success in the hat business. Three days after Knox the Hatter advertised the new hat in the Sun and two days before the opening of the play, a brief item in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on September 29, 1883, told readers where they could buy the new Knox fedora. It was for sale at a shop located at 310 Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, the site today of the Freedom Tower of the World Trade Center.
Knox claimed in his ad in the Sun that the French designer of his new fedora was named Gavarny, apparently referring to French illustrator Paul Gavarni, the nom de plume of Sulpice Guillaume Chevalier. Gavarni was famous for his fashion plate drawings for magazines, as well as for his costume designs for the theater and opera in Paris. “In the first years of his celebrity he designed costumes for nearly every actor and actress on the Paris stage,” wrote a reviewer of a biography of Gavarni and his work published in 1873. While Gavarni had died a generation earlier in 1866, a selection of Gavarni’s illustrations was published in Arts and Letters in London in 1883. Either those illustrations or any of many fashion or costume designs Gavarni did in his life could have been the inspiration for the design of the first fedora introduced by Knox. 

Self portrait by Gavarni, December 31, 1841

            Stetson immediately jumped on the fedora bandwagon. By February 1884, Baltimore haberdasher Joseph Sigmund was advertising the arrival of Stetson’s own “Fedora! Fedora! Fedora! All Shades. Complete Stock.” Soon Stetson fedoras were competing with Knox fedoras and those of every major hat-maker churning out their version of the new style. By 1891, Stetson could say it was a larger maker of fur felt hats than any other U.S. hatter. By 1901, 24 of the 132 styles pictured in the Stetson catalogue could be classified within the fedora style category. Stetson played the long game and won.

Growing the Factory Complex

In response to its ever-rising sales and profits, John B. Stetson was perpetually building and expanding his factory complex. The pace of that expansion was captured in industrial site surveys done periodically between 1877 and 1892 by Ernest Hexamer, a Philadelphia publisher of fire insurance atlases that included detailed sketches put together by field surveyors. 
            In February 1877, the first Hexamer survey of the Stetson complex in the South Kensington neighborhood included five buildings in the center of a V-shaped city block just north of Columbia Avenue, with North Fourth Street on the east and Cadwalader Street on the west and Montgomery Avenue on the north. The factory employed 300 workers. Eleven years later in the survey of October 1888, Hexamer reported that the factory had taken up nearly the entire block. Factory employment had risen to 800. 

Source: Hexamer General Surveys, John B. Stetson Plant, 1892.

In the survey of November 1892 Hexamer reported 1,100 workers at the factory. Two new large buildings had expanded the factory’s capacity by nearly half. There was a new seven-story building at the southernmost and narrowest point of the triangular block. The building, designed by Philadelphia architect George Pearson, had a clock tower and an enormous bell whose size, shape and design were reportedly inspired by the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall. The Stetson tower bell was made by McShane Foundry of Baltimore in 1889 and not by Whitehall Chapel in London, where the original Liberty Bell was cast. A new six-story building on the west side of Cadwalader Street ran south from Montgomery Avenue for nearly half a block. 

The Orange Factory

Beginning in 1877 Stetson augmented his Philadelphia production capacity with a separate factory in Orange, New Jersey, according to the business ledgers of John B. Stetson & Company. Prior to 1877, his older brother Napoleon Stetson had owned and managed factories of the family business since 1853 and was considered the leading hatter in Orange during those years, according to historian David Lawrence PiersonN. Stetson Company, however, was buffeted by the long six-year depression that followed the Panic of 1873. Beginning in 1877, John B. took charge of the business, while Napoleon continued to work there. His return to rescue the family business demonstrated that he had retained cordial relations with his older brother.  John B.’s father Stephen died in Philadelphia on February 13, 1878 at the age of 81, living long enough to see his son’s early success in Philadelphia and to see him rescue the family business in New Jersey. While there is no record of where in Philadelphia his father lived at the time, it is possible that he lived his final days with John B. and his second wife Harriet at 1717 Spring Garden Street. John B.’s mother, Susanna Batterson Stetson, had died in 1862 when John B. was out West.
According to the 1879 industrial survey by Hexamer, John B. Stetson & Company’s Orange Valley factory employed 100 workers. The plant was located at the site where John B.’s father Stephen Stetson had built his first hat manufactory in 1830, at the corner of Jefferson and Mitchell Streets. The factory was made up of a complex of seven buildings, including those built by John B. after 1877. All but one of the buildings were located along the east side of the East Branch of the Rahway River, and built on land that is today inside Orange Township. The dye house was on the west side of the branch and inside the boundaries of what is today West Orange Township.

No Name Hat Manufacturing Company

On December 28, 1883, the Stetson operations in Orange Valley were incorporated under New Jersey law as a separate entity known as the No Name Hat Manufacturing Company. John B. was named president with 800 of 1,500 shares. He built a new modern factory complex and became the company’s first president. This is the first time No Name is used in association with the Stetson family business in Orange. None of the operations that went before 1883 bore that name. 
Why was such a name chosen? Some have suggested whimsically it was because the Stetsons could not come up with another name on which they could agree. Another more credible reason was stated in a 1936 ruling by Judge John H. Woolsey who said this about No Name: “Its somewhat awkward name being chosen at the instance of John B. Stetson to avoid use of the Stetson name elsewhere than in his Philadelphia business.” The judge’s comments were made in a ruling in a lawsuit brought by the John B. Stetson Company in 1934 against Stephen L. Stetson, the grandson of Napoleon Stetson, who had begun making and selling fur felt hats in New York in 1933 under his own name. 
In 1893, John B. Stetson turned the reins of No Name over to Napoleon’s son Henry, also known as Harry, who became its president. Harry, like so many of his kin before him, had the knack for making hats. He “brought the No Name factory to a high state of prosperity,” according to historian David Lawrence Pierson. Harry Stetson later was elected mayor of Orange in 1898 and served as mayor until 1904. 

New factory built in Orange, New Jersey in 1883 by No Name Hat Manufacturing Company

             After Harry took the reins of No Name, the question arose again about using the name Stetson name on any of the hats made by No Name. The matter was brought to John B.’s attention by J. Howell Cummings, who had written to John B. at his winter home Gillen in DeLand, Florida. Stetson wrote back to Cummings in a handwritten letter dated December 20, 1893. “I note what you say about the No Name,” confirming his own concern about the matter. “If I Remember Harry Stetson is under Contract not to use Stetson in Hats for ten years.” He recommended that Cummings consult on the matter with Theodore C. Search, then treasurer and general manager at Stetson “and if He thinks Best Consult Mr. Elsasser.” Paul M. Elsasser was the company’s lawyer.
Stetson’s letter to Cummings was written on the stationery of The Atlantic, Gulf and Havana Railway Co. of Florida, a company based in St. Augustine. Stetson owned the company and was its president. The company’s goal was to build 170-mile railroad from St. Augustine via Daytona to DeLand and then to Tampa Bay. The railway was one of many business ventures launched by John B. Stetson during the last twenty years of his life, when he spent every winter in Florida. 
The matter of the use of the Stetson name by No Name is not a topic of concern in subsequent letters from John B. in Florida to Cummings in Philadelphia. Antique hats made held by collectors from that era have the No Name brand stamped inside. The hats also sometimes contain stamps for The Fray, a patent on leather hat bands held by Stetson in Philadelphia, suggesting the matter of branding between No Name in Orange and Stetson in Philadelphia was amicably resolved. Harry died in 1905 of pneumonia at the age of 48, and the management of No Name passed outside the Stetson family. In 1906, a few months after the death of the founder, the John B. Stetson Company registered Stetson as a trademark.
Stephen L. Stetson, Harry’s son, worked at various positions at No Name until it closed in 1927. As noted above, Stephen L. resurrected the issue of using the name Stetson on hats in 1933 when he launched his own hat company, Stephen L. Stetson Co., Ltd. Eventually the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Stephen L. could use his own name but that in doing so, he should take care not to appear to be associated in any way with the John B. Stetson Company in Philadelphia. After protests from the John B. Stetson Company, the court also required Stephen L. to take more care to avoid the appearance of a relationship in the future, which he did. Stephen L. died in 1947; however, antique hat collectors report that the Stephen L. Stetson brand continued to be used in men’s felt hats into the 1960s. Stephen’s son, Stephen Henry, also worked in the hat industry.

Stephen L. Stetson label inside the top of the crown of one of his hats.

A Shift in the Partnership           

John B. Stetson & Company was launched in 1866 as a partnership between John B. Stetson and his younger brother Charles Walter Stetson. In 1871, Charles is identified as the manager of the factory. The year following, Charles named his first-born son John Batterson Stetson in honor of his brother. Sometime between 1880 and 1885 Charles W. Stetson left the company. A new partner was brought on board. He was Henry H. Roelofs, John B. Stetson’s son-in-law, who was married to his daughter Wilhelmina Stetson. A surviving company ledger shows Roelofs as an executive who earned stock from the company for the years 1886 to 1889. 

Photograph of Stetson mansion Idro by Samuel Fitch Hotchkin

John B. Stetson demonstrated considerable affection for his son-in-law and their relationship at times appeared to be more like that of father and son. His son-in-law referred to him as “Pa” in surviving correspondence in Stetson company archives. By 1889, however, John B. would have three sons of his own from his third marriage to Sarah Elizabeth Shindler in 1884. At the time of the marriage, she was 26 and he was 54. The marriage “was to all accounts a happy and productive one,” according to Rosa Meddaugh, who wrote a booklet on Elizabeth’s life. They had three sons, John, Jr., born in 1884; Benjamin, born 1885; and George Henry, born 1887.
By late 1889 Henry Roelofs wanted to leave John B. Stetson & Company and set up his own hat business and asked his father-in-law to buy out his stake in the Stetson enterprises. Stetson worked with his son-in-law to reach agreement to pay him $50,000 for his share of the partnership in Philadelphia, as well as his investment in the No Name Hat Manufacturing Company. A letter to John B. from his attorney Paul M. Elsasser on December 26, 1889, appears intended to reassure John B. about the matter. “My dear Mr. Stetson, I am glad to know that you have come to a settlement with Harry. I knew there would be no trouble between you, as you were both prepared to do the fair thing,” Elsasser wrote. 

Takeover Target?

            Early in 1890, a rumor began circulating that an unnamed English syndicate had offered $3 million to buy John B. Stetson & Company. Overnight, a cloud of uncertainty appeared over the future of the company. Stetson himself was nearly 60 years old and no longer had a clear line of succession should he die, given that his son-in-law Henry H. Roelofs departed the company only months before and his oldest son, John, Jr., was only five years old. On February 3, the Philadelphia Inquirer published Stetson’s response to the rumor. “No effort has been made to buy my factory by any sort of syndicate, English or otherwise,” Stetson stated. 
In the final months of 1889 and the first months of 1890, English investor appetite for investing in American concerns was on the rise. Several new English investment companies had been formed in London with $100 million in aggregate capital to invest in American industrial enterprises, according to Samuel Untermyer, a New York attorney with close ties to American breweries, then the chief target of English syndicate offers. It was only a matter of time until one of the London investment companies made an offer to buy Stetson. 
Sure enough, an English syndicate came forward with an offer some time in the following year. News of the offer was made public in April 1891, when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Stetson had rejected “strenuous efforts to purchase the business” from an unnamed English syndicate. The Inquirer also revealed why Stetson rejected the offer. “The change is owing to the age of Mr. Stetson and the fact there is no one to succeed to his business, the oldest of his three boys being only six. Mr. Stetson does not want it to pass from his hands, his present resolve being actuated by a desire to perpetuate the business for his boys,” the newspaper reported. 

The 1891 Incorporation

Stetson, meanwhile, had been busily working out the future of the company and surprised the world by announcing in April 1891 that he would incorporate his business under Pennsylvania law and offer stock in the company to the investing public. He had made an end-run around English investors, their promoters, and London’s investor-friendly infrastructure and found a way to go directly to American investors to become a publicly-held American stock company.
Under the planned launch of the new corporation, preferred and common stock would be sold to close friends of John B. Stetson with most of the shares going to heads of departments and other employees, many of them with the company for a long time, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. William F. Fray, superintendent of the factory, was named vice president and general superintendent and would serve as a director. Fray had been with the company since 1866. In May 1891, highlights from the prospectus for the new corporation were advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Times of Philadelphia. Notices were also published in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Galveston, Texas.
            Stetson chose two New York firms to take the company public. The lead underwriter was the John H. Davis and Company, one of the oldest brokerage houses on Wall Street. Davis began his business career in Philadelphia in 1868 and moved to New York shortly thereafter and joined the New York Stock Exchange in 1873. In 1886, the Davis firm set up offices in the Astor Building at 10 Wall Street, directly across New Street from the Wall Street entrance to the New York Stock Exchange. Manhattan Trust Company was also a broker. The Provident Life and Trust Company of Philadelphia was chosen as transfer agent. 
            The stock offering came with an auditor’s certificate from Barrow, Wade, Guthrie & Company, a respected London chartered accountant with a New York office at 130 Broadway. Stetson was the first American corporation to furnish an auditor’s certificate with its stock offering, according to Paul M. Clikeman, associate professor of accounting at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business. This was a landmark advance in financial disclosure in the United States, according to Clikeman. Having an audited statement about the company’s financial condition made it a lot easier for the brokers to attract investors. 
            The John B. Stetson Company authorized $2.7 million in preferred and common shares, all stock priced at $100 par value, in what the prospectus claimed was the largest fur felt hat manufacturer in the United States. Of that total, $1.5 million represented preferred shares paying dividends of 8 percent annually. The remaining $1.2 million was authorized for common shares with a variable dividend rate tied to profit levels. 
            With the release of the prospectus, outside investors and the world at large gained insight for the first time into Stetson’s profitability, long a closely-held secret. Barrow, Wade, Guthrie & Company certified that Stetson’s earnings rose from $274,427 in 1887 to $332,624 in 1890. The auditors also certified that during the four years from 1887 to 1890 Stetson’s average yearly net profit margin was a healthy 22 percent.
            The auditor’s statement claimed that the company’s average annual profit for the prior four years, if it had been earned under the new corporation, was sufficiently robust to pay the 8 percent dividend on the preferred stock and, in addition, to also pay a 14 percent annual dividend on the common stock. The combination of those two numbers – 8 percent and 14 percent – represents that 22 percent average net profit margin over the prior four years. 
The prospectus offered insight into Stetson business practices. It stated the company designed and made hats for other hat makers. “This fact is important, as it insures the good will and friendly co-operation of the trade,” the notice stated. The offering also stated that the company only made hats for advance orders and had no excess inventory. “Notwithstanding the large capacity of the works, it has been impossible to keep up with orders received, hence there is not a dollar invested in or jeopardized by dead stock,” the offering claimed. Without having to finance idle hat stock, the company had yet another advantage over its competitors. 
            Stetson securities were to be listed and traded on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, the nation’s oldest exchange, founded in 1790. Even though the offering was placed by New York brokers, Stetson was not listed or traded on the New York Stock Exchange, according to Peter Asch, corporate archivist for the exchange. 
            The stock offering in May 1891 was a success. The lead broker, John H. Davis, was a prominent man in New York finance and society who would later report that many of his friends and business associates invested in Stetson shares on his advice. A month following incorporation of the business, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a list of 123 wealthy men in the city and its environs that were worth $1 million or more. Stetson was number 35 on the list with wealth estimated at $2 million. 

Navigating Hard Times

          Earnings sagged in 1892, the company’s first full year of production after incorporation. Stetson paid an 8 percent dividend on its common shares, which was a bit of a disappointment to investors. This was below the 12 percent marker Stetson had put down at the time of the offering. He had pledged that in any year the company could not pay a dividend of at least 12 percent he would forgo his $25,000 annual salary. 
Stetson’s hope that earnings would return to normal in 1893 was not to be realized. Instead, in January the Financial Panic of 1893 plunged the United States into its worst depression since its founding. Unemployment rose to 19 percent.The panic was a result of the collapse of railroad companies from overbuilding, much of it with shaky financing. Failing railroads, such as the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad Company, led to a string of bank failures. There was another smaller Panic of 1896, prompted about concerns about the gold standard.

Stetson catalogue, 1897

Stetson, of course, had to steer the business through these rocky times, as he had done in the long depression of the 1870s. To his dismay, Stetson’s earnings fell in 1893 and sank even lower in 1894, as profit margins shrank to a skinny 9 percent, far below the 22 percent level of the late 1880s. Stetson slashed the dividend to 4 percent and it remained there through 1897. Even as profits narrowed, Stetson was increasing its revenues, which by 1898 had soared to $1,479,000. Profits that year rose to $275,912, the highest since 1891, and profit margins widened to 17 percent. Stetson could finally raise the dividend on its common shares to 8 percent. 
Business boomed in 1899 and the profit margin widened to 19 percent, as a temporary expansion in factory capacity implemented the prior year was made permanent. The expansion of the factory was paid for by funds raised by issuing new shares. At last, the company could declare a 12 percent dividend, allowing John B. to fulfill investor’s expectations when they had invested in 1891. 
By 1899, Stetson was producing 600,000 hats a year and employed 1,200 workers. The company continued to expand the number of hat styles it offered to its 2,800 American retailers. The company’s foreign footprint had expanded to 200 retail shops in Latin America, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The company was offering an increasing array of hats and had introduced ladies’ hats into its catalogue. Stiff derby hats were still the best seller. Stetson had introduced innovations that expanded the appeal of its line of soft felt hats.

Stetson’s Monthly, featured hats from Stetson catalogue: left to right, stiff hats, flange brim hats (soft felt), and Boss Raw Edge style hats (soft felt), October 1899. Credit: Hagley Museum 
Stetson’s Monthly, featured hats from Stets0n catalogue: left to right, staple styles, cowboy styles, and ladies styles, October 1899. Credit: Hagley Museum

        John B. Stetson created a bit of a kerfuffle in late 1899 when he fired Theodore C. Search, executive director and secretary of the corporation, who had been hired in 1895 to run the company, in part because of Stetson’s failing health. Search had managed company operations in the four years when Stetson’s sales and profits recovered, boosted by a rebounding economy.
In response to the firing, Stetson’s New York investment banker John H. Davis wrote a letter to John B. Stetson on December 11, 1899, conveying his dismay and urged him to reconsider his decision, tying the company’s success in the late 1890s to Search’s guiding hand. Stetson offered Davis reassurances about his decision but refused to budge. He offered to meet with Davis, who declined. Davis finally withdrew his demands. “I can well understand that there may be causes for the recent change, which are of greater importance than, in the absence of details, I was able to appreciate,” Davis wrote in a letter on December 16 in response to Stetson’s December 13th letter to him. 
A year after Search’s departure, Stetson promoted James Howell Cummings, the man who would be his successor, from secretary to second vice president to take on the role Search had filled when he was at the company. While the reasons for Search’s dismissal are lost to history, what mattered more was that Stetson managed to smooth over relations with Davis, who was responsible for the success of the company’s 1891 stock issue. It was important because the John B. Stetson Company would rely on additional periodic stock issues to fund its very rapid expansion in the early 20thcentury.  

An Investor Bonanza

Notwithstanding the worries that may have troubled some investors, the good times for investors were just beginning in 1899. In 1900, profits exploded to $567,000 on sales of $2,222,000. Profit margins zoomed past 25 percent. 
With a strong economy giving Stetson headwinds, its fortunes soared. In 1901, the net profit margin widened to nearly 27 percent of sales. The company declared a lofty 17 percent dividend for common shares, its highest so far. In 1902, Stetson issued $500,000 in common stock to fund the building of a new warehouse, a new hospital building and a five-story addition to its new power house. In 1904 and 1905 the net profit margin rose to 30 percent. In 1906, Stetson shattered all records with a net profit margin of 32 percent on higher sales of $5,495,00o. Investors reaped a bonanza they never expected to see. 
While the company would triple its revenues by 1920 and net profits would remain strong, in no year after 1906 would the company deliver such celestial investor rewards. Share prices in 1906 reflected expectations for continued high earnings. Stetson’s common stock traded on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange at $271, far above its $100 par value. Even the preferred shares traded for a premium at $152.

Military and Police Hats

One way Stetson became the largest hatter was the considerable appeal of its military hats in the U.S. West and Canada, many of them having a design derived from the Boss of the Plains. Stetson also became the preferred hat for state and provincial police officers in the United States and Canada, as well as some military forces outside North America. 
During the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, for example, Stetson received an order for 10,000 hats from the British government for the South African Constabulary, which had been formed by Major General Robert Baden Powell in August 1900. The general had seen members of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery fighting with the British. The Canadian soldiers wore tan felt hats made for them by Stetson. The hats had a wide brim and an oval cylindrical crown with indentations, a variation of the Boss of the Plains that had become very popular among cattle drivers of Canada’s western plains, according to the Canada War Museum. General Powell admired the Canadian Stetson hats so much he “ordered 10,000 directly from the American company to outfit his constabulary,” the museum stated. “The Stetson factory made and shipped them within six weeks of the receipt of the order,” according to Fray. 

Left, Major General Robert Baden Powell wearing Stetson campaign hat for Britain’s South Africa Constabulary. Right, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, an American who fought in the Second Boer War, wearing a Stetson on the day King Edward VII awarded him the medal for the Distinguished Service Order.

Stetson’s prominent role as a maker of military hats can traced back to the 1870s, when the company began to make hats for the U.S. Cavalry. A cavalry hat from 1875 can be found in a collection of vintage Stetsons at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Today Stetsons are worn by the members of the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas, which still maintains a Horse Cavalry Detachment for ceremonial purposes and morale. 

1875 Stetson Calvary Hat, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

1st Cavalry Division Horse Cavalry Detachment, Fort Hood, Texas. 

Stetson hats were also an early and enduring favorite of the Texas Rangers. Texas stills requires Rangers to wear only western hat styles “commonly called the Rancher or Cattleman.” Stetson is still the hat of choice.


  1. Amazing that Mr. England could uncover so much of Stetson's history that had previously vanished into the fog of time.


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