The "Panama" Hat
Always made in Ecuador
It is said that the art of weaving the toquilla straw hat goes back to the 16th century, to the Manabí province on the coast of Ecuador. The magic began at the hands of the Valdivian culture, an ancestral group that started it all... weaving, wearing, and trading the hats. The hats did not have the characteristic shape for which they are known for today, but they were created using the same materials and methods as present-day production.
Around the year 1830, the exiled Spanish politician Manuel Alfaro arrived in Montecristi and began exporting hats to Panama, organizing production in an efficient, large-scale manner. The California Gold Rush brought large numbers of people through Panama en route to the gold mines, where the hats were discovered and redistributed throughout the world. The Ecuadorian origin of the hats went largely unacknowledged, as the hats were named after the port they were purchased.
In 1855 at the Paris World Fair, the "Panama" hat was showcased by a Frenchman who lived in Panama. Ecuador was not mentioned as a participating country nor was the origin of the hat specified, and the hats continued to be thought of as Panama Hats. Following their European debut, the hats were adopted into the fashion trends of France, and later Britain.
This sombrero again reached popularity in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, when the US Government purchased 50,000 hats from Ecuador for troops heading to the Caribbean. The lightness and breathability of the material offers a great advantage for sun protection. Its flexible fiber also allows the hats to be rolled and folded without damage, features that led it to be a popular choice for troops, and later for workers during the construction of the Panama canal. At the point of the canal construction the hats were already well known, but they achieved an even wider audience when Theodore Roosevelt was frequently photographed wearing the attractive straw-made "Panama" hat while visiting the building site of the Panama canal.
By 1944, Panama hats were Ecuador’s top export