Where Was the Panama Hat Invented? History and Origins
Why Is It Called a Panama Hat?
So how did a hat that has been made in Ecuador for thousands of years by Ecuadorians end up being called a Panama hat?
Simple. It took its name from the place it was shipped from, not from the place it was made. The isthmus of Panama, even before the canal and before the arrival of the Spaniards, was a center for trade in the Americas, and the hats made in Ecuador were prized and sought after in Pre-Columbian as well as Spanish colonial times.
Mid-1800s: A Fashion Frenzy
In 1849, because of the California gold rush, the hats really took off. People on their way to California from Europe or the east coast of North America arrived at the isthmus of Panama by ship from the Atlantic, made the short trip across the isthmus to the Pacific, and embarked on a ship to California. Along the way, many of them purchased the sturdy, lightweight straw hats from Ecuador that were quickly becoming known as Panama hats. In 1855, the Panama hat took the Paris Exposition by storm, selling out and creating a fashion frenzy.
During the construction of the Panama Canal, both workers, officials, and visitors wore the hats. By the time the Panama Canal was officially opened in 1914, the toquilla hats from Ecuador were a fashion icon and were known by all as "Panama hats."
Hats From Ecuador
Are you surprised to learn that Panama hats do not come from Panama? That's right. Genuine Panama hats come only from Ecuador—and not just any place in Ecuador, but from two very special valleys where the micro climate is perfect for growing the toquilla straw from which Panama hats have been handwoven since the days of the Inca Empire.
The Ecuadorian towns of Montecristiand Cuenca are where most Panama hats are made. They are created by craftspeople whose skills have been refined and handed down for generations. Making the hats is, for the people of these two towns, a calling and a way of life as well as a job. A superior Panama made by a master craftsman can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and will probably be bought by a Wall Street titan or a Hollywood film star. More modest Panamas can be had for much less, but a real Panama hat is never cheap.
Cheap Hat? Probably a Fake.
If you see a "Panama" hat advertised for twenty-five or thirty dollars, you may be sure it is not the real thing. It is probably machine-made from some sort of plastic or twine—but surely not from toquilla straw. It does not have the light weight and fine weave of the genuine article. A Panama hat is worth every penny you pay for it.
To get an idea of the time and patience involved in the weaving and finishing, have a look at the video below. It will give you new respect for the Ecuadorian hat makers, and for the hat itself.
The Story of Cuenca Panama Hats
Buying a Panama Hat
The most important thing determining quality in a Panama hat is the fineness of the weave. The straw can be split so that it is as fine as thread, but the finer the weave, the longer and more difficult the construction of the hat, so the higher the price. Depending on the fineness of the weave, a hat can take from one day to several months to make and is priced accordingly.
Other things to take into consideration when shopping for a Panama hat include the following:
- the quality and uniformity of the weave
- the number of "rings" or vueltas where new straw has been added to the weave
Monticristi or Cuenca?
Generally, Monticristi hats are of finer quality and more intricate workmanship than Cuenca hats, but this can vary from craftsperson to craftsperson and even hat to hat. The best way to check out the quality of a Panama is to hold it up to the light and just look at the weave and workmanship. Once you know what you are looking for, you can see the difference.
If you are buying from a catalog or online, you won't be able to examine the hat before buying it, thus you need to buy from a merchant you trust and one that has a good return policy.
Shopping Online for Panama Hats
If you can't get to Ecuador to pick out your own hat, you can buy direct from the makers online, or you can put your trust in American and European haberdashers who carry quality Panamas. Check out these online resources:
- The Panador Hat Company was established in 2008 in order to fully develop the markets for the fine products of Cuenca. The company works closely with both the United Nations and and the United States Agency for International Development. You can not only shop for hats here, but for other products as well.
- The Panama Hat Company of the Pacific was formed in 1987 to preserve the fine hat making traditions of the town of Monticristi. This is one of the oldest and finest online emporiums for Monticristi hats. They work directly with the weavers wherever possible and the website not only includes a very complete range of hats for both men and women, but lots of good information about Panama Hats and the people who make them. Even if you are not in the market for a hat, check this website out. You won't be sorry.
Whether you buy online or from a boutique or specialty store in your own hometown, a genuine Panama hat will serve you well for years. They are famous for good reason and are worn around the world by those who wish to protect themselves from the sun while keeping air circulating around their heads and who also prize style and good looks. The genuine Panama has it all—hats off to the Panama hat.
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Roberta Kyle