Ten-Gallon Hats.

JC’s excellent “Random Link” feature took me to this 2015 post, and as I always do I checked the links, expecting that the one to Peter Jensen Brown’s blog would probably be dead after eight years, but not only did it work, the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog is still going, and earlier this year had a post “Two Gallon” Top Hats and “Ten Gallon” Cowboy Hats – a Voluminous History of the “X-Gallon” Hat that I obviously couldn’t resist (language and hats!). It is indeed voluminous (like the hats), and it’s full of visuals (newspaper clips for the most part); by the time you’re done, you’ll know all about this fine expression. The conclusion is that “‘ten-gallon’ is an ‘irreverent,’ humorous exaggeration used to emphasize the relatively large size of the hat,” but the fun is in the details. Some excerpts:

For many decades, beginning as early as the 1880s, silk top hats, stovepipe hats or plug hats, were routinely referred to as “two-gallon,” “four-gallon,” “five-gallon” or, on occasion, even “ten-gallon” hats, although by far the most common version seems to have been the “two-gallon” hat.

Beginning in the late-1910s, as top hats were going out of style, western-style “cowboy” hats became the new sheriff of “x-gallon” hat town. One of the earliest known, unambiguously Western examples was a reference to “ten-gallon hats” in Texas, although “two-gallon” and four-gallon” were more common through much of the 1920s. References to “x-gallon” western hats were kept in the public eye through movies and movie commentary, shameless self-promotion by westerners and western towns and civic organizations, and by several high-profile incidents involving Presidents Harding and Coolidge and high-profile hats. “Ten gallon hat” would become more-or-less standard by the 1930s. […]

The earliest such reference, from 1882, does not specify the type of hat, but suggests that it would make the speaker unrecognizable from his normal appearance.

Hush! Charley; don’t talk so loud. When we have our two-gallon hat on the girls can’t tell us from the “hairy man of the jungles.”

The Homer Index (Homer, Michigan), April 12, 1882, page 3.

The earliest-known example of “ten gallon hat” is from a political parade in 1908, by the Blaine Club of Cincinnati. The article does not describe the style of hat, but a contemporaneous photograph of the same event proves, at least in this instance, that the hats being referred to were of the top hat style.

This morning, just about the time Enquirer readers pick up the paper and give it hasty perusal before negotiating their ham and eggs and hot rolls, a special train that worked overtime in eating up the distance between this city and the town of the Big Wind on Michigan’s shores will be shedding oodles of white ten-gallon hats in the Union Depot of the latter city.

Cincinnati Enquirer, June 15, 1908, page 7.

Numerous examples of “x-gallon hat” from the same period are suggestive of its being a piece of formal wear, and not informal, western attire. The hat King George wore before his coronation, an “ordinary black silk beaver,” was said to have a “capacity about two gallons.” A “long tail coat, five gallon hat, or a few lapel trinkets, winks and passwords” were said to have once been all that was necessary for “admission into the best” society. And when former Mayor John F. Fitzgerald (John F. Kennedy’s grandfather) led the Boston Braves onto the field for game four of the 1914 World Series, he was “without his two-gallon hat and cutaway for the first time. A soft hat and business suit sufficed.” They would lose the game and the series that day. Blame it on the hat. […]

The earliest example I’ve found of “x-gallon hat,” unambiguously in reference to a western-style hat, is from 1917. A man named F. T. Boylston, of the IXL ranch in Wyoming, took a job inspecting horses at the Kansas City stock yards. But he was something of a heavy drinker, “he had a thirst eleven months long,” and needed some cash. To alleviate his situation, he passed a bad check – he got away with it because of his big Stetson hat.


Or, Why a Farmer Cashed a Bad Check for a Cowpuncher.


A Texas reporter chastised another reporter for confusing “Dutch” people from the Netherlands with “Dutch” Germans. A New Yorker might make a similarly “provincial” error in assumptions about Texans.

That is as provincial an error as for the New Yorker to assume that the Texan always wears a ten gallon hat, and spends all his time lynching people.

El Paso Herald, January 5, 1918, page 4.

The theory, that the “gallon” in “ten-gallon” hat is a corruption of “galon,” a Spanish name for a decorative braid, first appeared in print in 1939. The theory appeared in a brief article, in an academic journal, written by Arthur L. Campa, a professor of Spanish at the University of New Mexico. The article was reprinted, nearly in full, in several newspapers shortly afterward. The theory received a gloss of extra-respectability, when cited in a footnote of a discussion on Spanish loan-words in H. L. Mencken’s American Language: Supplement I (1945). It has since been repeated as fact dozens of times in dozens of newspapers, books and other sources, generally without question, attribution or additional supporting documentation. And many of the later restatements of the theory toss in new, additional, unsupported details, not in the original.

The theory was first published more than ten years after President Coolidge’s famous “ten-gallon” hat-wearing incidents, more than two decades after the earliest-known examples of “x-gallon” western-style hat appeared in print, and long after the original “two-gallon” stovepipe hat had largely disappeared. The theory may have taken hold because of collective amnesia about the archaic term for the archaic hat. And the person who first floated the theory may not have even been familiar with the passe term for the passe hat-style. […]

Since its first appearance, the general idea has been repeated hundreds of times as fact, and with additional embellishments not mentioned in the original. Whereas Campa simply suggested that “gallon” came from “galon,” and the “ten” was added to suggest relative size, later versions of the theory suggest that “ten” related to either the height of the crown, or width of the brim, as measured by the number of “galon” braids it could accommodate. These embellishments, which are no fault of Campa’s, seem particularly implausible.

As for Campa’s suggestion that “gallon” came from “galon,” it seems as though it would have been a plausible explanation, or at least a suggestion worthy of additional exploration, if not for the existence of the long history of describing abnormally large hats by increasingly exaggerated volume.

There is much more, including a demolition of the “tan galan” theory (note that “galan” should read “galán,” and “galon” should read “galón” throughout — it’s a pity Brown doesn’t bother with accents and is careless about hyphens, since he’s so meticulous about historical documentation). If you have any interest in this stuff, do click through.


  1. I never understood the appeal of those extremely-high-crowned Western hats. In contrast, a really wide brim (like on a sombrero) can have real benefits in keeping the sun out of your eyes. I have a canvas Stetson, but it’s no higher than my other broad-brimmed hats.

  2. My sombrero is like that as well.

  3. I would guess the extra air space makes it easier for sweat to evaporate and/or adds insulation.

  4. George Grady says

    It’s been over 16 years since the “sombrero” post. Have the hat pictures shown up in the meantime?

  5. I fear not. In fact, I haven’t even looked into the “Hats” and “Languages” cellars in years…

  6. I was intrigued by the screwjack mention in the 2007 Sombrero post. Is a screwjack the same as a lolly pole/lally post/lolly column?

  7. Never heard of the latter, but this makes it sound like it is.

  8. Thanks. I had never heard of a screwjack, but google images of them sure look like the lolly poles in the cellar under my library!

    “ Temporary Lally Columns
    Temporary Lally columns, also called jack posts, are indispensable for construction or renovation projects. When load-bearing walls need to be modified or removed temporarily for projects such as remodeling or expanding interior spaces, these adjustable steel columns provide essential support.

    Temporary Lally columns offer versatility through their adjustability feature, allowing contractors to fine-tune their height according to project requirements. Builders or contractors will securely position jack posts beneath areas where they plan to alter the load-bearing walls permanently or temporarily eliminate them for a project. These temporary supports help mitigate potential hazards that may arise due to compromised structural integrity.”

    source: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/foundations/reviews/what-is-a-lally-column

    From the same source:

    Lally Column vs. Jack Post
    A Lally column is a rigid, long steel tube typically filled with concrete that provides permanent structural support to a building. It is used in construction to support heavy loads. Professionals install them during the initial construction phase.

    A jack post, also known as a telescopic or adjustable steel column, is designed for temporary use. It is flexible in height and is often used to temporarily support a structure during construction or renovation, such as when modifying load-bearing walls or support beams.

  9. A jack post, also known as a telescopic or adjustable steel column, …-

    I can confirm ‘screw Jack’s as a term of art in the (U.K.) scaffolding/construction industry. You put a screw jack into the base plate then the ‘standards’ (uprights) slotted into them. Then you adjust the screws as you build higher, to keep the whole structure square and vertical.

  10. And now I know why my thousands of books have not collapsed the floor of my study.

  11. Once, when we were buying a house, the inspection report raised some questions about the stability of some if the floor joists. So the seller (who was actually a contractor) had several screw jacks permanently installed in the crawl space.

  12. raised some questions

    A magnitude 6.4 earthquake doesn’t just ‘raise questions’, it means a steel ball-bearing placed on the floor will roll into a corner unaided.

    You can’t send some dude into the crawl space with power tools when there’s still aftershocks, and mere screw jacks doesn’t count as permanent. So lift the floorboards, screwjack up the joists, remove the piles, replace with longer ones, screwjack lower on to them.

  13. The early cowboy movie stars, like William S Hart or Tom Mix, wore hats that actual cowboys had worn in the recent past. These featured wide brims to keep the sun off, and also high crowns. Y’s argument that the high crown helps your head to cool off seems plausible.

    Later cowboy movie stars wore the currently fashionable hats with the brim folded up on both sides. These ridiculous hats are also seen on country singers (from the 1940s on). I say ridiculous because the point of a wide brim is to keep the sun off. Folding up the brim makes your face more visible when you’re being filmed, but if you’re supposed to be a real cowboy, it doesn’t help keep the sun off.

    When I was very young, I was a big fan of Hopalong Cassidy (played by Wm Boyd). Now Hopalong had a very practical hat.

    But this was after people like Hank Williams were wearing those other hats. Those ridiculous turned-up hats are not really hats so much as a sort of cultural signifier that you wear on your head, like Sydney Greenstreet in a fez or Basil Rathbone in a deerstalker. Of course, the first half of the 20th century was replete with hats as cultural signifiers. It wasn’t until JFK that men stopped wearing hats.

    I remember people talking about ten-gallon hats when I was young, but it seems to me that they must have been talking about those Tom Mix hats. I’m a big fan of Junior Brown, but there’s no way you could describe his hat as a ten-gallon. Maybe a 24 oz.

    I somehow retain this from my childhood.

    What’s that you got on yer head, cowboy?
    That’s a ten-gallon hat.
    How come it don’t fit?
    Got a five-gallon head.

  14. It wasn’t until JFK that men stopped wearing hats.

    This is the story we are always told, but if you look at pictures and films from the 1950s it seems obvious that younger men were already giving up on hats well before JFK came along. Kennedy was just the first president young enough to have embraced a decade old trend. Or maybe he recognized a fedora would make him look old. I suppose it may well be the case that Kennedy’s example encouraged older men to dump their hats as well.

  15. Yeah, my father was not wearing hats in the ’50s, and I think that’s true of most of the men he hung out with of his generation (he was born in 1915).

  16. Kate Bunting says

    *It wasn’t until JFK that men stopped wearing hats.*
    I thought of John Betjeman’s reference to Edward VIII in his poem on the death of George V “A young man lands hatless from the air”. This was, of course, 1936.

  17. @AntC: We checked that their permanent installation of screw jacks was in code (and, as I said, the guy selling the house was a contractor himself, although this wasn’t the kind of work he most typically did). We never have earthquakes here, and where that house is located, even the thousand-year flood had no effect on it, except for moving some of the mud in the crawl space around a little.

  18. @Bloix: There’s an urban myth that top hats disappeared after JFK did wear one at his inauguration in 1961. As it has become more known that he actually did wear the hat, there have been alternative claims that he got rid of the top earlier in the festivities than had been done previously, but I don’t know whether or not that has any validity.

  19. David Marjanović says


    That’s enough. The rest of the URL is irrelevant. We don’t need to know you did your search in Chrome. 🙂

  20. A magnitude 6.4 earthquake doesn’t just ‘raise questions’, it means a steel ball-bearing placed on the floor will roll into a corner unaided.

    My present apartment was like that all the time until the termite-eaten beams (not piles) that held up the floor, which dated to 1873, were removed in the gut rehab of 1986-96 (one year of actual construction, the rest financing and politicking).

    “A young man lands hatless from the air”

    The hat would blow off in a1936 plane, and anyway, a hat is rather pointless if you are wearing a helmet under it.

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