The Panama Hat Isn’t Originally From Panama, But?
“Panama hats aren’t originally from Panama!” you say, “Next you’ll tell me Belgian waffles aren’t from Belgium!” While you can rest easy knowing that your Belgian waffles are actually from Belgium (they were invented there and brought to North America by a Belgian baker), Panama hats are distinctly, well, not Panamanian.
What we know as the Panama hat is actually a traditional hat that has long been made in Ecuador. Traditionally woven from the leaves of a Carludovica palmata plant, the hats have been produced continuously in Ecuador since crafting them became a cottage industry back in the 1600s. To this day, the highest quality Panama hats in the world are still produced, by hand, in Ecuador.
So why, then, is it not referred to as the Ecuadorian hat? It’s a combination of two factors: one practical and one a matter of popular image. Up until the mid-20th century, the vast majority of South American goods were first shipped to Panama and then distributed to the rest of the world via centralized shipping lines. Panama hats came to be known as such due to simple association with the location they were shipped from. That association was further cemented in 1904 when U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing a Panama hat while visiting the construction site of the Panama canal. The photo piqued American consumer interest in the hat and further cemented the association between the hat and Panama.
Image courtesy of Jmolina1999.