A Brief History of the Panama Hat


You’ve probably heard the old saying that the three most important factors in retail success are location, location, and location. Now imagine your location is Ecuador in the mid-1800’s.

You have straw hats you want to sell. It doesn’t take long to notice that Ecuador is not a very busy corner. Not much walk-by traffic. Even today, Ecuador is not a major tourist or commercial destination. Nor does it have a lot of people passing through on their way to somewhere else.

So you scratch your head and try to figure out how you’re going to find customers for your hats. You look at a map and notice that just a few hundred miles north, a relatively short boat trip away, is Panama. In the 1800’s Panama was part of what is now Colombia. Then, Colombia was called New Granada. Unlike Ecuador, Panama is a very busy corner, with lots of walk-by traffic. Panama is the narrowest point of land separating the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans anywhere from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America.

Before air travel, anyone on the East Coast of Canada or the U.S. who wanted to go to the West Coast (or vice verse) had three choices: (1) travel overland, (2) take a ship around the tip of South America, (3) take a ship to Panama, cut across the isthmus, and get another ship on the other side. Option number three was the fastest, and probably the least hazardous, of the choices.

So, clever businessperson that you are, you take your hats to Panama to sell them. People like your hats. There is a reasonable amount of traffic. Business is good. Then gold is discovered in California and the number of people passing through Panama explodes exponentially.

You say the 1849 equivalent of “Woo-hoo!” Business is very good.

Your strong, lightweight, attractive, straw hats are much in demand. They are perfect for deflecting the tropical sun of Panama, just the thing for those long days many are about to spend outdoors in sunny California getting rich panning for gold, and they’re even nice to have on a summer day in Philadelphia or Boston.

People on their way to the gold fields buy your hats. People returning home from the gold fields buy your hats. And when your customers arrive at their destinations, an oft-heard comment is “Nice hat. Where’d you get it?” The response is, of course, “Panama.” You neglected to put Made in Ecuador stickers inside all the hats, so the inevitable result is that the hats are called Panama hats.

Great. Ecuador’s most famous export is called a “Panama” hat. People in Ecuador hate that.

A second major contributor to the misnomer was the Panama Canal. Canal workers often wore the hats, which showed up pretty well in black-and-white news photos of the day. One photo, made on November 16, 1906, is often credited as the origin of both the name and the fashion.


The photograph showed President Theodore Roosevelt wearing a black-banded straw hat as he sat at the controls of a ninety-five-ton Bucyrus steam shovel during a three-day inspection tour of the Panama Canal excavation. The picture was widely published in the U.S., and around the world, prompting much comment on the President’s Panama hat.

Other accounts give part of the credit to ship passengers going through the canal, a love affair, and a revolution. Which is the “true” explanation? They are all true. And no doubt each is at least partly why a hat from Ecuador is called a Panama hat.

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