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Where Was the Panama Hat Invented? History and Origins

Nothing beats a Panama hat.

Nothing beats a Panama hat.

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."

Teddy Roosevelt sports a Panama on an inspection visit to the Canal in 1906

Teddy Roosevelt sports a Panama on an inspection visit to the Canal in 1906

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.

Various weaves for Panama hats.

Various weaves for Panama hats.

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.

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© 2010 Roberta Kyle


Anna from New York, NY on April 24, 2018:

This was so informative and now of course I'm itching for a genuine panama hat from Ecuador!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on October 14, 2011:

and thank you patbess for reading and commenting. I find it amusing too, which I think, is why I wrote the hub -- It must stop being funny though when people keep asking you to send them hats:-)

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 08, 2011:

I stand corrected :-)

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on July 08, 2011:

Nah, it's yellow straw with a much wider brim and lower, cap-shaped crown. What ladies in the 30s, 40s and Fifties called a "sun hat". ;D

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 08, 2011:

yup and they are made in Ecuador not Panama-- who knew? But Jama--I think your avatar must be wearing a genuine Panama, no?????? Thanks for stopping by and commenting

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on July 08, 2011:

I had no idea of the difference between a genuine "Panama" and a cheap knock-off. Thanks! ;D

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 08, 2011:

glad you liked it and thanks for commenting.

zi.ripon from Dhaka,Bangladesh on July 08, 2011:

Great Hub. thanks for the topic.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on September 17, 2010:

Glad you liked it and thanks for taking the time to read and comment

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 28, 2010:

Anytime Drew:-) thanks for that vote of confidence both for the Panama hat and the hub

Drew Davis on July 28, 2010:

I have nothing but love for you and the " Panama hat." As a student of the world,and a man with epicurean taste I just want to thank you for the edcation you have given on the best straw hata known to man.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 13, 2010:

Glad you liked it 2patricias and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I originally did this as a post for a blog I do on Eye on LIfe called A Hat for All Seasons and found the info so interesting I just had to expand it into a hub.

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on July 13, 2010:

This is a brilliant hub. Pat's Wonderful Husband often wears hats, and owns a wonderfully find Panama. It can be rolled up and carried in a suitcase, and looks great when it is unrolled. It was not cheap (but not top price either) but has proved to be good value for money.

All the information in this hub is fascinating.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on June 01, 2010:

My pleasure James and I thank you for stopping by and commenting. I love Panama hats too:-)

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 01, 2010:

How very interesting! I had no idea that Panama hats—which I love—are not from Panama but from Ecuador. Well, I thank you for the fine education.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on May 31, 2010:

Gladja liked it samboiam -- thanks for stopping by and for the thumbs up:-)

samboiam from Texas on May 31, 2010:

This is so cool. I never knew this. Really never gave much thought to it but now I have a tidbit of information that most my redneck uneducated trailer park white trash friends will not know.

Voted this up.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on May 15, 2010:

Oh good lord ST-- I remember those hats and yes, I hope hats are making a comeback too. It is said in certain circles that they are, but who knows. Good to see you, as always:-)

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 15, 2010:

Delightful telling of the history, Robie, another Hub in your engaging style.

I'd seen years ago a documentary on the weaving of these hats and was totally transfixed by the labor and skill that went into the making, the labor and skill not unlike those of executing an exquisite knotted rug.

I do hope that wearing hats is on the come-back, so that the finely-crafted Panama can survive another few hundred years. Not to mention, wouldn't it be fun to wear some of those 50s hats with the flat tops and the triangular clips that anchored the hats to your head just around your temples, a la Lucille Ball? LOL

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on May 14, 2010:

Thanks William. I'm glad you like the hub. I too remember the days when men wore hats. My grandfather used to tip his hat to ladies, a custom which has gone the way of the buggy whip. There was something charming and gallant about the gesture.

I hear that hats, for both men and women, are making something of a comeback. I hope it is so. Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to read and comment

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 14, 2010:

Wonderful hub, Robie2. I got to love straw hats in the 1950's when I was a volunteer with the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Connecticut. We ran an art show and all of us volunteers wore the straw hats -- I wish I knew what ever happened to mine! Hats in general went out of fashion about the same time President Kennedy was inaugurated and his failure to wear a hat on that cold inauguration day dealt a mighty blow to the hat industry (And Kennedy had made a significant speech as a congressman about the textile industry moving south for cheap labor.) I have a friend who wears a fedora regularly, and from what I'm hearing the industry may be making something of a comeback. I hope so.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 30, 2010:

Hello HP-- yes it is interesting. I always assumed they were from Panama but as you see, it seems they are not

H P Roychoudhury from Guwahati, India on April 30, 2010:

It is interestingbto know Panama Hat is not coming from Panama.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 30, 2010:

Thanks compu-smart and thanks for stopping by-- always nice to see you:-)

Tony Sky from London UK on April 30, 2010:

My hat off to you for this very interesting read!!:)

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 30, 2010:

A great Jeopardy question indeed :-) Thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting

ocbill from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice on April 30, 2010:

nice looking hat. looks very dapper. Cuenca who would've thought. A great jeopardy question

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 29, 2010:

Hi everybody-- let me respond to you all one by one. Great to see you all btw.

Doghouse-- I totally agree that is is shameful how little of the cost of a Panama hat goes to the skilled weavers at the bottom of the food chain who do all the work. I will say that many of the online resources linked to in this hub are trying to see that the workers get their fair share, but nevertheless-- they still get too little in most cases.

Frieda-- yes the history of the hat is very interesting and I liked that video too--ery interesting

tonymac04--don't be discouraged-- you can buy a genuine Panama for under $100-- it just won't be the Cadillac of Panama hats :-)

Pachuca213 glad you liked it. Thanks for visiting and taking time to comment.

Pachuca213 on April 29, 2010:

wow that is quite fascinating. Great hub!

Tony McGregor from South Africa on April 29, 2010:

I really enjoyed this read! Although it has dealt my ambition to own a Panama hat a serious blow - how will I ever be able to afford one? I guess more and more Hubs is the anser!

Thanks for sharing this interesting history.

Love and peace


Frieda Babbley from Saint Louis, MO on April 29, 2010:

Who knew?? This is so interesting. The history and origins of hats are such interesting topics to me. Their cultural significance is quite overlooked. Great video addition as well. Viva le Panama hat!

In The Doghouse from California on April 29, 2010:

Such great information about the Ecuadorian Panama Hat. It is interesting how such a costly hat comes from one of the poorest countries in South America. Their contribution of the Panama hat is certainly a highly recognizable fashion statement throughout the world, unfortunately they don't receive the notoriety for it! Thanks for giving credit where credit is due.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 29, 2010:

Hi Steph and thanks-- I love them too and they last forever. Thanks for stopping by:-)

Hello Pam. The Panama will be great on those birdwatching walks you and the other seniors go on in Costa Rica-- just watch out for Rush Limbaugh. I hear he's planning on going there too LOL

pgrundy on April 29, 2010:

I want one! I can wear it when I retire in Costa Rica. :)

(Soon, very soon...)

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on April 29, 2010:

These Panama Hats (which don't come from Panama) are so classy looking! I think they add timeless style. So cool, and what a great subject for a hub!

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