How the Iconic Panama Hat Got Its Name

The name Panama hat often brings to mind images of sunshine and paradise. The story behind the name of the iconic Panama hat goes back to the mid-1800s. Despite the exotic name that made Panama hats a global fashion sensation for nearly 200 years, they actually originate in Ecuador.

Hand Woven Panama Hat
Image Credit: flickr/Ministerio de Turismo Equador

The Panama Hat: An Ecuadorian Invention

A true Panama hat is hand woven with toquilla palm fibers by skilled artisans in Ecuador. A majority of Panama hats come from the Ecuadorian province of Manabi which contains the villages of Montecristi and Jipijapa. Historically, throughout Central and South America, people referred to Panama hats as “Jipijapas.” As its most popular export, Ecuador takes great pride in Panama hats. Since most people feel a Panama hat would logically come from Panama, Ecuador rarely gets credit for the invention or production of the famous hat. Additional, when Panama hats first appeared at the 1855 World Fair in Paris, Ecuador was never mentioned in the World Fair catalog.

Panama Canal
Photo Credit: flickr/Roger W

The Hat Travels to Panama to Strike Gold

Ecuador wasn’t a high-traffic tourist destination during the 1850s. As a clever business decision, the hat makers took their stylish accessories to the busy trade center of Panama. There, the hat makers struck gold. They sold hundreds of hats to gold prospectors traveling through Panama to California during the historic Californian Gold Rush. Travelers would tell people admiring their unique hats that they bought them in Panama. So, the hats quickly became known as “Panama hats.”

Panama Hat
Photo Credit: flickr/Pavel N. Matustik

The Famous Hat of the Panama Canal

People have favored Panama hats for their wide brims, comfort, and lightweight straw fibers from the very beginning. During the construction of the Panama Canal that began in the 1880s, hardworking canal workers wore the hats to keep them protected from the heat of the sun. Photographs of Panama Canal workers wearing their special hats quickly circulated around the world, causing people to label the Ecuadorian headpieces as “Panama hats.” In 1906, a famous image was taken of President Theodore Roosevelt proudly wearing his hand woven straw hat during his visit to the Panama Canal. Americans have called them “Panama hats” ever since.

Image credit: Public domain

People across the world have enjoyed the authentically Ecuadorian hat for centuries. Regardless of their name, Panama hats are a perfect travel accessory with a history as unique as their iconic design. For more interesting facts about the making of Panama hats, visit our article: “Behind the Brim: Who Makes Those Artisan Panama Hats.”


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