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Published on Sep 17, 2013 in Featured Articles, Latin America, News, North America

The Panama Hat

If you’ve been to Florida, where I live, you frequently see people wearing Panama hats. These hats are usually light-colored, lightweight, and stylish. They’re wide-brimmed, breathable, and are ideal to protect the wearer from the tropical sun. However, Panama hats did not originate in Panama. They actually originated in Ecuador! Let me explain how that happened.

Photo from mistercrew.com

Photo from mistercrew.com

Panama hats were originally made in Ecuador, at least as far back as the seventeenth century, from the plaited leaves of the toquilla palm. Europeans and North Americans, who were in South America at this time, frequently wore Panama hats to protect themselves from the oppressive tropical heat. Sensing an opportunity, foreign businessmen ordered these hats for export to other countries with tropical climates. As with most South American goods in the 19th and early 20th century, products for export were first shipped to Panama, where they were placed on ships sailing for Europe, North America, and Asia. Since the hats being exported had no distinctive marketing name, they soon became known as Panama hats, which was a reference to their origin of shipment rather than their country of origin. The term Panama hat, used at least as early as 1834, stuck with both exporters and consumers alike and has been used ever since.

The Panama hat wasn’t an overnight success outside of Latin America. Instead, its success was gradual. Perhaps the first real love affair with the Panama hat outside of Latin America was by miners on their way to the California Gold Rush, between 1848 and 1855. These miners often traveled to California via the Isthmus of Panama and would purchase Panama hats while in transit. California thereby became an early export market for Panama hats. But with the end of the Gold Rush the hats notoriety faded until the turn of the 19th century, when the U.S. government wanted to find headgear to protect its troops in the tropics from the hot sun. Looking at the reported use of Panama hats by gold miners, and its widely accepted use in Latin America, the U.S. government began ordering Panama hats. One of its first reported uses by the U.S. military was during the Spanish American War of 1898.

The Panama hat received another shot of notoriety when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the construction site of the Panama Canal in 1904. During that visit he wore a Panama hat and again popularized its use. When pictures of the President wearing this hat appeared in print throughout the United States, film stars soon started wearing the Panama hat and their popularity increased throughout the Western world.

The Panama hat is still manufactured in Ecuador, but many other countries, in particular China, now manufacture and continue to sell it under its original name. The quality of Panama hats varies, with the highest quality consisting of 1600 and 2500 weaves per square inch. These hats are referred to as Montecristis, named after the town of Montecristi, Ecuador where they were originally produced. If a Panama hat is referred to as a superfino, then it’s able to hold water. There are currently less than a dozen weavers capable of making Montecristis and superfino Panama hats.

Alan Refkin

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