Panama Hats Don’t Come from Panama

The famous Panama Hats that have adorned everyone from indigenous locals and Presidents, to Hollywood actors and gold miners have an unfortunately misleading name. Panama hats don’t come from Panama at all. They come from Ecuador. The name confusion started around 1835 when entrepreneur Manuel Alfaro immigrated to Ecuador from Spain to make a fortune off of manufacturing and exporting these hats. 

Panama Hats in the raw
Panama Hats waiting to receive their final shaping. Photo credit: Amanda McCadams

History of the Panama Hat

Although Ecuador is where these hats were produced, at the time this small country in South America wasn’t exactly a hot spot for trade and commerce. Panama, however, did get a lot of traffic. People traveling from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast oftentimes chose to do so via the isthmus of Panama. So to Alfaro, it made good business sense to export the hats to Panama to be sold. When the gold rush of 1849 happened, an explosion of people began to travel westward chasing after the gold. Those that took the route through Panama saw these hats and picked one up. When people asked where they got it the answer was obviously Panama. Since there was no “made in Ecuador” label sewn in the brim, the true origin of the hat was largely unknown. The hats were further popularized during the 1855 Paris World’s Fair but again, there was no mention of the hats’ origin being in Ecuador. In 1906 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt toured Panama to view progress of the construction of the Panama Canal and in many photos taken during that trip he can be seen wearing the popular hat. 

Experience the Intangible Culture

Panama Hat
The author’s Panama Hat purchased on one of her many trips to Cuenca, Ecuador.
Photo credit: Amanda McCadams

If you are keen on visiting where the Panama Hats are made and perhaps purchase an authentic one for yourself then head to Cuenca, Ecuador. The historic city center of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Panama Hats of Ecuador were declared Intangible World Heritage in 2012. In this beautiful city you can take a tour of a workshop, visit a hat museum and enjoy a stay in a heritage city. 

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