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While technically not an insignia, the ranger hat has become synonymous with the ranger service. Even though Smokey is actually a motif of the Forest Service, most people think of the Park Service when they see him. Similar police hats are also called "Smokey the Bear" hats.

It would appear that this "Stetson" style of felt hat evolved from John B. Stetson's first "Boss of the Plains," which he marketed in 1863. [56] This style has long been known as the "ranger" hat, no doubt from being used previously by the Texas Rangers. This style of hat was so popular in the West that "Stetson" became a generic term, like Fedora in the East.

drawing of hat
Sigmund Eisner drawing of the "Alpine" hat ordered by the department in 1912. NPSA/YELL

The first hats worn by rangers in the Park Service were "Stetsons" like those of the Army. These were usually creased fore and aft, but there were no regulations on the subject and it was left to the ranger to do whatever styling he wished.

When the first "authorized" uniforms were ordered in 1911, they included a "felt camping hat after the Stetson style." [57] It can be assumed that this was a continuation of what the rangers were familiar with. With the ordering of uniforms in 1912, though, an "Alpine" style hat was specified. [58] From the drawing submitted by Sigmund Eisner, it would appear that this was the forerunner of the current stiff-brimmed hat. Photographs bear this out. They show a hat similar to what the rangers wear now, except for a higher "Montana" peak, or pinch. This would seem to prove that when Mark Daniels attempted to formalize the Park Service uniform in 1914, the hat was already being used. [59]

The hat was first formally specified in the 1920 uniform regulations. They stated that it would be "Stetson, either stiff or cardboard brim, 'belly' color", a shortening of "Belgian Belly". named after the beautiful pastel reddish buff color of the underfur of the Belgian hare from which some of the finer hats were felted. Here again, this was more than likely a ratification of what was already being worn by the rangers. [60]

Richard G. Doyel
Richard G. Doyel, Guide, Mammoth Cave National Park, 1941. Doyel is wearing the soft cap worn by rangers assigned to motorcycle duty and in some of the Eastern parks and monuments. National Archives/RG 79-SM-32

The 1932 regulations specified that the "Stetson hat" was to have a "three inch stiff brim," was to be equipped with the "prescribed National Park Service leather hatband," and was to be considered the standard headpiece for use in all National Parks and National Monuments." There were exceptions to the "all." Employees in the eastern parks and monuments and rangers assigned to motorcycle duties were authorized to wear an "English Army Officer" style, of the same material as their uniforms.

In 1935, there was some agitation from the field, especially the western parks, for a wider brim to help protect the head from the sun and rain. Office Order No. 324 of April 13, 1936, changed the hat specifications to call for a "Stiff brim 3 to 3-1/2 inches wide, and 4 - 4-5/8 inch crown, side color." Why the color was changed from "belly" to "side" is not known. The John B. Stetson Company, which started selling hats to the Park Service in 1934, initially had trouble with the "side color," and the Service ordered all purchases from the company to stop. In September 1936 the company notified the Uniform Committee chairman that it had "developed the exact color desired by the National Park Service" and was in a "position to manufacture hats and fill orders." It also agreed to replace all hats of the wrong color previously ordered at no charge. The Service rescinded the stop purchase order. [61]

Office Order No. 350 of June 15, 1938, changed the color back to "belly" and added three ventilator holes on each side. They were to be arranged in the "form of an equilateral triangle. bottom leg of triangle 1-1/2 inches above brim, legs of triangle 1 inch."

park rangers
Ranger force at Mesa Verde National Park, 1929. Prior to 1959. when blocking was done at the factory, rangers were only instructed to "put four small dents in the crown," resulting in all sorts of variations.

Left to Right: front row: Bert Hart. Paul R. Franke, James Dalton (US Commissioner), Dwight W. Rife, Horace M. Albright, Jesse L. Nusbaum. C. Marshall Finman, Richard D. Hager, Lyle Bennett; back row: Raymond Devlin, Paul Rice, Norris Bush, Stephen J. Springarm. Proctor L. Dougherty, David H. Canfield, James Armstrong, Virginia Jessip (secretary), (?) NPSHPC-George Grant photo-HFC#3-179

Until 1959, the only instructions to employees concerning the blocking of the hat was to put four small dents in the crown. Thereafter the dents were blocked at the factory for uniformity.

Uniform regulations issued in November 1959, effective January 1, 1961, were contained within a National Park Service Uniforms Handbook. This handbook contained uniform specifications and other information pertinent to the wearing and care of the various garments. Under the heading of hats, it stated: "Care should be used in selecting the correct size and head shape. Width of brim should be chosen to suit shape of face and physical appearance. Generally, average sized individuals should wear 3-1/4" brim, short stocky persons or those with long thin faces should wear the 3" brim. The felt hat is available in "long oval," "regular oval" and "wide oval." If the hat fits the head properly, it will be more comfortable, look better, and will not be easily dislodged by sudden gusts of wind. The average life expectancy of a felt hat is three years. It should be worn at a slight angle to the right side and not tilted forward over the eyes or worn on the back of the head. The cloth hat band that comes with new hat should be removed and never should be worn under the uniform leather hat band."

Regarding hat care and maintenance, the handbook stated: "Excessive sweating or the use of hair oil will quickly ruin the appearance of the felt hat. Accumulations of oil around the sweatband and brim will also penetrate the hatband. For this reason, care should be used in placing an old hatband on a new hat or the new hat will be soiled. Clean the hatband with saddle soap. A compound of carbon tetrachloride "Carbona" is available for cleaning hats and the inner surface of hatbands. French chalk may be used to remove fresh grease stains. If the hat becomes wet it can be satisfactorily dried by turning the sweatband outward and allowing the hat to stand on the sweatband until thoroughly dry. Sandpaper or a nail file can be used to remove accumulations of dirt and grease.

The Stetson Company will recondition felt uniform hats for $7.50 if the hat is not too far gone."

Barton Herschler
Barton Herschler, custodian, Muir Woods, 1933. As this photograph attests, ventilation holes had been used in the hat for many years prior to their becoming specified in the regulations. HPSHPC-George Grant photo-HFC/MUWO#6a

Roger Allen
Roger Allen, superintendent, Everglades National Park, 1967. Allen is wearing the standard ranger straw hat with the pine cone version of the hat band. NPSHPC/HFC#91-5

In 1959, a straw version of the standard hat was inaugurated for warm weather wear. Its specifications were as follows:

Style--"National Park Service" ventilated milan braid material, Belgium Belly color, crown specifications same as for the felt hat. Stiff brim, flat set, average width 3-1/4", marine service curl, leather sweatband and hat [sic]. Indentations in crown, same as for the felt hat.

A transparent plastic hat cover was made available for the protection of both the felt and straw hats.

Carole Scanlon
Carole Scanlon, 1970. Scanlon is wearing the 1970 women's version of the standard hat at the unveiling of the new women's uniforms at Independence National Historical Park, Freedom Week, June 27, 1970. It was of a softer, lighter grade of felt, similar to that worn by other women, and could did not stand up to the rigors of even moderate use. Consequently, most women preferred the standard men's hat when one was needed. NPSHPC-Cecil W Stoughton-HFC#70-249-5

James E. Putman
Ranger James E. Putman and a friendly opposum, c.1968. Putman is wearing the rain cover for his hat. He also is wearing the 1960 name tag and 1968 badge. NPSHPC/HFC#96-1347

The 1970 regulations concerning women's uniforms brought with it another version of the standard hat. Unfortunately, it was more a victim of style than function. It closely resembled the standard men's hat and while made from a quality felt, it was nevertheless of light-weight material like other women's hats, instead of the heavier men's grade. Because of this lack of body, the brim didn't remain stiff, nor the hat in general, hold up to the rigors of everyday use. Most women that were required to wear a hat, opted for the man's felt or straw, depending on where they worked.

These hats have carried over to the present time. Down through the years there has been an array of other headgear, but nothing has stood out as a symbol of the National Park Service like the regulation "Smokey the Bear" felt hat.


Last Modified: Fri, Jan 17 2003 07:08:48 am PDT

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