The History Behind Panama Hats

Posted by Jackie Lopez on 11/1/2012

The History of “Panama” Hats…
Made out of vampire skin? Well, they are translucent, light and airy. But, they are actually made of “Paja Toquilla” or by the plant scientifically named, “Carludovica Palmata.” However, legend has it that Spanish conquistadores thought that they were made of vampire skin when they saw the Incans wearing the hats predecessor. Dating back further than 400 years, these hats have benefited many in comfort and style, from the Incas of Atahualpa to presidents, politicians, famous engineers, architects and artists to this day. This stylish head wear protects from the sun while keeping you standing out in a crowd. They come in many styles for men, women and even children. Panama hats are a great part of history and have made an incredible difference on Ecuador’s evolution and economy, and an amazing difference on the world in fashion, art, and the outdoors. Continue reading as we give you a look behind the hat into its making and how it evolves throughout centuries.



Theodore Roosevelt, Santos Dumont, Winston Churchill and Paul Newman



Panama Hats are traditional brimmed hats that have been made by hand in Ecuador for centuries. These beautiful hats date back to the early 1600’s. After the Spaniards’ conquest of the Panama Canal they wanted to extend their search further south to discover other riches they had heard mention of, and that would begin the interesting relation between Panama and Ecuador. These ambitious and determined conquistadores, led by Captains Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, reached the now Republic of Ecuador in 1526 and founded the “Real Audiencia de Quito,” or the Royal Audience of Quito, in 1534. The Spanish empire was introduced, ending forever with the great empire of the Inca Atahualpa. Attracted by adventure and gold, countless settlers began to arrive from the Iberian Peninsula.

Hats made out of vampire skin?

During this confrontation of two cultures, the Spanish and the Indigenous discovered many unique things. History says that the Spanish conquests brought horses to South America for the first time. Legend has another story relating to the hat, stating that the first Spaniards, in seeing strange clothing on the heads of some of the indigenous, thought that the translucent and light material, a feature of “paja toquilla”, had come from the skin of vampires. The hats back then, or their predecessors, didn’t have brims and went all the way down to their shoulders. The archaeological discovery of ceramic figures whose heads were covered with strange garments contributed maintaining this interesting anecdote. Whether this was real or just a tale of the indigenous, this event took part in the legend of the hat that later would become known as the “Panama Hat.”


The hats contribution to Ecuador’s evolution and revolution…

A century later the hats reappear in the provinces of Guayas and Manabí, marking the year 1630 in history as the rebirth of the artisanal making of these unique and one of a kind hats. Francisco Delgado, a great creative and passionate weaver, is recognized, thanks to registering in record books, and in that the importance of this unique hat as an asset to Ecuador and its people was also acknowledged. This hat would later prove to help change the economic life of the coast of Ecuador in decades to come, noticeably evolving from the mid 1700’s and taking even more impulse into the 1800’s.

What’s in a name?


By the 1800’s these beautiful hats had been called by many different names. One was “jipijapa” named after a small village in Manabí where they originated. Others of higher quality were and are still called “Montecristi,” named after a very small village, or “pueblito,” built on the slopes of a desert hill near the port of Manta. The town owes its fame to having the best “Paja Toquilla,” or straw, weavers in the world. Others called the hat simply “sombreros de Paja,” or straw hats.

The finest hats around…

In 1835, a Spanish business man by the name of Manuel Alfaro, settled in the town of Montecristi where he saw riches in his eyes at the sight of the of the finest “Sombreros de Paja”, the “Montecristis.” He was determined to get these hats to export and make his fortune. He soon gathers his own circuit of weavers to make higher quantities of these fabulous hats faster and quickly begins to find business opportunities. These “Montecristis” start their exportation through the nearby ports of Guayaquil and Manta towards the golf of Panamá. This pueblo had its glory days during the era of General Eloy Alfaro, an Ecuadorian hero (and son of Manuel Alfaro), who was born and lived his childhood there. Thanks to the exportation of these hats, Eloy Alfaro was able to finance part of Ecuador’s liberal revolution.

Through the Era of Gold…

The era of the Gold Rush begins, and more in search for “El Dorado” in California travel through Panama. This long route in the heat of the sun calls for the travelers to wear hats. Thanks to these searchers wearing them, the hats reach the United States. The demand for them quickly starts to sky rocket and becomes too high for the weavers of the Manabí province alone. In 1836, the city of Cuenca takes action and creates a hat factory and later adds a workshop where trade and manufacturing took place to help with this high demand.


A Nobel Prize winning plant…

Paja Toquilla finally earns its Nobel Prize towards the end of the 1800’s when José Pavón and Hipólito Ruiz, botanists of the Real Garden of Madrid or “Jardín Real de Madrid,” were sent by the King of Spain, Carlos IV, to study the plantation of South America. The plant is then entered in botany books as “Carludovica Palmata” named after the King and his wife Queen Luisa.

High demand calls for competition…

In 1845, Don Bartolomé Serrano, a citizen of the small town of Azogues, joins the hat business. He rapidly became great competition for the Manabí province by producing really high quantities of hats with the attempt to surpass their high quality standards and perfectionism.

 In 1855, during the Universal Exposition, Paris is introduced to these one of a kind hats. However, in the catalog of the exposition, Ecuador is not recognized as its place of origin, and it’s under “Commercial Diversities,” or “Comarcas Diversas” that Phillipe Raimondi, coming from his residence in Panama, introduces these hats to France. The Parisians take a liking to these fine hats and the demand begins to grow out of the capabilities of Phillipe Raimondi. The hat soon becomes a fashion trend in Paris after a “montecristi fino” is offered to Napolean III. The hat is then given the name “Panama” with the confusion of the port of origin with the country of origin.
By the middle of the 19th century, the production of these hats took off so much that on record 500,000 hats were exported in 1863 to different countries from the port of Guayaquil. Many were exported to the United States, other parts throughout South America, and Europe.

Uniting two Oceans…

An even bigger project is started at the end of this century. The construction of the Panama Canal begins under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps, an engineer in charge of uniting these two oceans, largest in the world. While working on building this amazing construction, the many workers suffered from the heat and burning of the sun and it became inevitable to wear hats for protection. The majority of the workers wore hats since they were light, blocked the sun with their large brims, and kept them cool. Some finer models of hats even served to carry water which was a great way to refresh from the heat.


In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt visits the construction site of what would become the Panama Canal. Wearing one of Ecuador’s fine hats, he is photographed and it is his pictures that would circle the world in newspapers and magazines exposing the hats like never before. From then on the hats kept its name of “Panama” Hats, though Ecuador received its recognition as their place of origin through time and the clarification with the history behind these gorgeous hats.

The fame continues…

Later, the glamorous style of the 1940’s gave these hats even more place and recognition. Throughout history, people from all walks of life, including presidents, artists, and politicians, wore and benefited from “Panama” hats. Many famous heads have worn them too, such as Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Paul Newman, Alberto Santos Dumont and celebrities of today like Johnny Depp, Sean Connery, Kevin Spacey, Madonna, Monica Bellucci, and Javier Bardem amongst many others.

Our appreciation…

Panama hats are works of art that take time and dedication to make and perfect. Our hats come from Cuenca and Montecristi, woven by the hands of very talented artisans. We appreciate you taking the time to read the history behind these beautiful hats and hope that you get to experience the pleasure that comes from wearing one.