Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Panama Hat: A Classic

Wearing my Panama hat on a hot afternoon during the 2014 Homer Soda Festival
If you've read my novels, you know my main character, Levi Garvey, is known to wear a Panama hat--it's his trademark.  He probably bought his Panama hat after he moved to Savannah, Georgia.  Panama hats are very popular in that lovely Southern city.  There isn't a better hat for warm climates.  The reason I put Levi Garvey in a Panama hat was because I'm a lazy researcher.  I know those hats well--I've worn them for a long time.  Levi's Panama is featured on both of my novel covers--and most likely future novels will feature Levi's hat as well.

Gone a little crazy from the heat . . .
Panama hats are still very popular today.  And they can be pricey.  Mine isn't.  Mine was imported by Stetson Hats, and they shaped it and banded it.  Mine was less than $50, and I've worn it a lot over the last three or four years, and it's not even begun to show wear yet.  You can buy a good Panama hat, depending on how fine a quality you want, from between $50 - $300.  You might think that top end is a little high for a straw hat, but a super-fine woven Panama can easily run twice that, and there's really no upper limit on a hat made by a master craftsman.  And believe it or not, there are connoisseurs and collectors of these top end hats.  

And once you wear one, you'll understand why they have always been so popular since they first hit the American scene at the turn of the last century.  They are shaped into many classic styles (mine is a retro-Fedora style) they are feather light, cool and comfortable, and if you take good care of them, they continue to look great year after year.  And they are easy to care for.  There's really only two things to remember about taking care of a Panama hat.  1.) Keep the salt off off of them by rinsing them out with clean water.  Salt from your sweat is very hard on your hat and will dry out the straw they are woven from causing it to prematurely age and crack.  I rinse mine out in the sink, and let it dry on a coffee can.  2.) Only touch the brim when putting on a Panama or removing it.  That same rule applies to any brimmed hat, but especially a Panama.  The crowns are woven from straw, and repeated squeezing when you put on and take off a Panama will eventually crack the fibers and ruin the hat. 

Levi's Panama on 1st cover
But what many people don't know, is that Panama hats aren't made in Panama--they are made in Ecuador from toquilla straw that is grown there.  They can't be made by machines--they are woven by hand by artisians, and they vary in quality depending on the skill of the artisian, and the tightness of the weave.  A good quality Panama hat can hold water.

I'd done quite a bit of research on Panama hats when I wrote my first novel--I'd owned several over the years, but knew little about them.  But there was one fact that escaped me.  My friend Steve Harrison posted a very interesting story on his One Minute Mason blog--I had totally missed the Freemason connection to Panama hats.  And there is one.

Here's Steve Harrison's story:

Levi's Panama on the Master's chair
2nd novel cover
Eloy Alfaro was an Ecuadorian liberator and President of the country from 1906-11. His Lodge is unknown, but his Masonic status is not in doubt: his anti-Masonic successor as President had him imprisoned and ultimately killed for being a Freemason! 

Following his presidential term, Brother Alfaro lived in Panama in exile. While there, he imported toquilla hats from Ecuador and sold them to finance his revolution. The hats were immensely popular and since they came from Panama, were assumed to have originated there. Named to reflect that fact, "Panama hats" were introduced to the world by Brother Eloy Alfaro, and they actually come from Ecuador.
Many famous Freemasons were known to wear these comfortable and casual Panama hats--most prominent amongst them were Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mark Twain. 

If you'd like to try one out, Delmonico Hatter has a great selection of moderately priced Panama hats.  I buy all my hats from them, and they have great service, and excellent prices--and more often than not, the shipping is free (and fast). 


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