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Cool Things - Truman's Panama Hat

Harry Truman's Panama hatPhotographs of a president and his headwear prompted one Kansas Democrat to send a better hat. Or so he thought.

Photos of Harry Truman wearing a Panama hat appeared in the press during the summer of 1950. These images were seen by lumberman Frank Hodges of Olathe, a lifelong fellow Democrat whose brother had once been governor of Kansas. Considering himself an expert on Panama hats, Hodges felt the example worn by Truman was not of the quality befitting a sitting president.

Hodges later explained:

"The good ones (Panama hats) are actually made in Ecuador by the Indians. . . . They do a painstaking job. Their hats are then sent to Panama where they are marketed and that's where they get their name."

Made in Ecuador

Indeed, Panama hats are made in Ecuador from the leaves of the toquilla straw plant. After their manufacture, the hats are shipped to Panama for distribution. The name is derived from the country where they are introduced into international trade. The hats' quality is determined by the number of weaves per square inch-the higher the number, the better.

Having known Truman for many years, Hodges immediately wrote him after seeing the president in apparently inferior headgear. As Hodges later recalled, his letter stated that he owned "two fine [Panama hats] and that I was sending one of them to a fine hat maker, asking them to check it over, and be sure it was in first-class shape before sending it on to the President."

Perhaps Hodges had forgotten that Truman would recognize a quality hat because he and a partner had briefly run a men's clothing store (also known as a haberdashery) in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Nevertheless, Truman responded politely to the letter. He thanked Hodges and sent the older headwear that had inspired the letter. Hodges quickly realized his impression of the original hat was mistaken.

"It is a good hat, Id say about a $40 hat. So I wrote to the President and thanked him. I told him I had thought I was getting a $5 or $10 hat and that I feared I would be regarded as a sharp trader."

Truman in Kansas City, Kansas, to inspect flood damage during September, 1951.  Is he wearing the hat sent by Hodges?This is the Panama hat sent to Hodges by Truman in exchange for the new model. The president's initials, "HST," are stamped in gold on the sweatband inside the crown, and Truman also signed his name on the exterior hatband. The hatband is stamped with the vendor's mark, Brodt's in Washington, D.C. This business apparently started in the late 19th century and was still operating into the early 1980s.

Hodges donated Truman's hat to the Kansas Historical Society when he visited Topeka for the Democrats' annual Washington Day program in February, 1951. This prompted Topeka Capital reporter Virg Hill to place four one-liners in his column, "Hilltoppers," on March 1st. From the tone of the jokes, Hill obviously was not a Truman fan and may not have cared for the Democratic Party, either.

  • One of Mr. Truman's hats now rests in Kansas Historical Society archives, perhaps beside the shirt Alf Landon lost in 1936.
  • Kansas Republicans have been after Harry's scalp for years but they didn't expect to get just a sample of the New Deal overhead.
  • Visitors may be amazed to note the hat's size--so much smaller than brash White House statements indicate Harry thinks it is.
  • The sample of male millinery will be a reminder that a man who went broke as a haberdasher is now guiding the whole country in the same direction.

This Panama hat worn by President Harry Truman is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

Entry: Cool Things - Truman's Panama Hat

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: September 2010

Date Modified: September 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.