Panama Hat History

PreHispanic Ceramic Figure

1200 B.C - Pre-Hispanic Headwear
Before Columbus discovered America, inhabitants of the coastal areas of what is today Ecuador were already wearing a type of headwear made of woven straw.  

Evidence of these hats were found in several ceramic figures of different Ecuadorian cultures that dated back as far as 1200 B.C. 

   
  16th Century – The First Panama Hat
When the Spanish Conquistadores reached the coast of Ecuador, where the provinces of Guayas and Manabi are located today, they recorded the native indians wearing straw hats that covered their ears and their necks. These hats looked like the headdresses worn by nuns and widows back in Europe which were called "Tocas" in Spanish. So the hats were called "toquillas" or "little headdresses" and the straw was referred to as "toquilla" straw. Soon, the Spaniards themselves started wearing hats of the same material themselves.
   
  17th Century - The Montecristi Hat
Spanish colonialist used native labor to produce European style hats, replacing the traditional Toquillas that covered ears and neck. Skilled weavers were located in the towns of Jipijapa and Montecristi (Manabi Province) and soon these villages turned into hat weaving centers and named their hats after their towns. Until today, the Montecristi Hat is recognized as the finest in panama hats.
   
  18th Century – Scientific Name was defined
Spaniards started to use Toquilla Straw Hats and they became popular with the colonial nobility. Soon, the King of Spain ordered several bolts of toquilla straw for his wife. Botanist discovered that the straw that was used to weave the hats came from a palm species that only grows in the coast of Ecuador, between 100 and 400 meters over sea level, and they gave the palm the scientific name of Carludovica Palmeta in honor to the King Charles IV of Spain and his wife Ludovica.
   
  1835 – First Modern Hat Business
After Ecuador gained independence from Spain, an entrepreneur called Manuel Alfaro settled in Montecristi in 1835 and established a hat production business using his own straw plantations and hiring skilled weavers. His business went well and soon he started exporting to Panama, since it was becoming an important commercial center. Later on he opened shops in Panama, which attracted the attention of buyers from around the world, who soon associated this Ecuadorian product with the country of Panama.
   
  1836 – 1845 – The Cuenca Hat
In 1836, the city of Cuenca in the southern highland province of Azuay opened a hat factory in attempt to boost the local economy. Cuenca Hats differ from Montecristi hats essentially in the thickness (weaving time) and the color (bleaching) of the straw. Authorities established a modern workshop with plenty of wooden hat blocks, bleaching powder, tools and toquilla straw that was brought from plantations of the coast. Some master weavers were brought from Manabi to live in Cuenca and training was given to anyone who was willing to learn. Soon, the hat industry in Cuenca became one of the most powerful economic activities in the region.
   
  1848 – The Gold Rush
In 1848 the Gold Rush began and people rushed to California by the easiest way in that time: crossing the Isthmus of Panama. While passing through, they often bought hats on their way and spread the word about Panama Hats in the USA. Eloy Alfaro, son of Manuel Alfaro and later the President of Ecuador, took over the family business and in 1849 Ecuador exported 220.000 hats to California.
   
  1855 – World Fair in Paris
A Frenchman who lived in Panama exhibited the hats at the 1855 World Fair in Paris and since Ecuador was not mentioned as a participating country the hats were baptized as "Panama Hats". The French fashion soon adopted the Panama Hat and even Emperor Napoleon III wore a Montecristi Hat spreading the trend to other European countries. In Great Britain, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) also became a Panama Hat aficionado.
   
  1863 – 1898 Export Expansion
Ecuador continues to export panama hats to the USA and Europe but expands its market to South America, the Caribbean and especially Cuba, where hats were highly needed for the workers of the sugar and tobacco plantations and huge amount of hats were bought every year.
   
  1898 – Spanish American War
The US Government bought 50,000 hats to protect its soldiers from the intense sun of the Caribbean during the Spanish American War.
   
  1906 – The Panama Canal Construction
During the Panama Canal Construction many hats were bought for all the US workers and engineers that arrived in Panama. The popularity rose all over the world when a photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt wearing a stylish Montecristi hat during a visit to the canal, appeared in the world press.
As a curious fact, in 1925, Turkey's modernization laws banned wearing the traditional fez and forced the use of Panama Hats.
   
  1944 – Hollywood Golden Age
The Panama Hat exports reached its peak during 1944 when it became Ecuador`s number one export item, also due to a decline of the cocoa exports. One of the main reasons for the sales to boom was the effect of the Hollywood Golden Age, many stars wore panama hats on and off screen popularizing the use of the stylish panama. The Panama Hat appeared in movies such as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Key Largo, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man Who Would Be King.
   
UNESCO

2012 – Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the traditional weaving of the Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat as an Intangable Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  

Intangible Cultural Heritage means the practices, knowledge, skills, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces,  transmitted from generation to generation, that communities recognize as part of their cultural heritage.    Intangible culture includes song, music, drama, cuisine, annual festivals, skills and crafts

 
Videos and Documentaries
 
"The History of Panama Hat", Video of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage of Ecuador (Spanish).
 

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