Most people think it is because the hat will hold ten gallons, but as you can see by the large hats below, the most a large hat could hold would be a few quarts.
Man from Jacksonville, East Texas Oct 1939 – Photograph by Russell Lee
A famous ad for the Stetson company once depicted a cowpoke giving his weary horse a drink from the crown of his hat.
Stetson Ad from 1924
The nickname (10 gallon hat) became popular around the 1920s, when silent film stars like Tom Mix and Tim McCoy helped popularize the oversized hat in Hollywood Westerns.
Men in Eldorado, Texas Nov. 1939 by photographer Russell Lee
“Most experts argue that the name “10-gallon hat” is actually an import from south of the border. Cattle drivers and ranchers in Texas and the Southwest often crossed paths with Mexican vaqueros who sported braided hatbands—called “galóns” in Spanish—on their sombreros. A “10 galón” sombrero was a hat with a large enough crown that it could hold 10 hatbands, but American cowboys may have anglicized the word to “gallon” and started referring to their own sombrero-inspired headgear as “10-gallon hats.”
Mexican cowboy sharpening his knife. Roundup near Marfa, Texas photographer Russell Lee May 1939
Another theory argues that the name is a corruption of the Spanish phrase “tan galán” —roughly translated as “very gallant” or “really handsome”—which may have been used to describe the majestic image of a hat-wearing cowboy in the saddle.
Cowboy on horse with equipment on cattle ranch near Spur, Texas by photographer Russell Lee May 1939
Whatever its origin, the 10-gallon hat wasn’t even the preferred headgear for most people in the Wild West—top hats and bowlers were more common.
Cowboys and spectators at Ashland rodeo, Montana August 1941 by photographer Marion Post Wolcott
A group of Texas cowboys 1901 photographer William Henry Jackson Detroit Publishing Company
The 10-gallon hat went on to earn a place as a quintessential piece of the frontier wardrobe, and presidents like Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson would later use them to cultivate a rustic image while serving as commander in chief.
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