Theodore Roosevelt, Santos Dumont, Winston Churchill and Paul Newman
Hats are traditional brimmed hats that have been made by hand in
Ecuador for centuries. These beautiful hats date back to the early
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. Alfaro 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 (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 creating a hat factory and later adding a workshop where trade and manufacturing took place to help with this high demand.
A Nobel Prize winning plant…
Paja Toquilla 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 to study the plantation of South America. The plant is then entered in botany books as “Carludovica Palmata” named after Carlos IV 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. Soon it became mandatory for those in the province of Azuay to learn how to weave. 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 “Comarcas Diversas,” or “Commercial Diversities,” that Phillipe Raimondi, a business man 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 his capabilities. They soon become a fashion trend in Paris after a “montecristi fino” is offered to Napolean III. It is then that hat was 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 and 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 soon 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, Modonna, Monica Bellucci, and Javier Bardem amongst many others.