Modern-day coonskin caps: not cool
For two periods in our country’s history -- once in the days of freewheeling, westward-bound pioneers, and again in the 1950s -- a hat made of raccoon fur was the talk of the town.
Once worn by Native Americans and pioneers, the cap faded into historical irrelevance -- until Disney fortuitously resurrected it through a Davy Crockett television special. At its peak, the coonskin cap nearly ubiquitously adorned the heads of American children, made manufacturers $300 million ($2.6 billion in 2014 dollars), and became one of the defining ‘it’ products in United States history -- “bigger,” in the words of one Davy Crockett actor, “than anything, ever, including The Beatles and Elvis."
The coonskin cap, in all its furry glory, may very well be the most profitable fad you’ve never heard of. As a Crockett myself, I natuarlly had to find out what all the fuss was about: Where did these things come from and how did they get so popular?
The Haute Couture of Pioneers
'The Man in the Raccoon Hat' (Wendi Donaldson)
When we think of the raccoon hat, we invariably think of the American frontiersmen -- those stoic, hulking figures who bore shotguns and frayed leather jackets thundering through the Great Plains on horseback. While these men did popularize the hat, they actually appropriated it from the natives they extruded while making their way out West.
European pioneers migrated westward in two major pushes -- first to the Mississippi Valley (late 1700s to early 1880s), then to what is now the Northwestern United States (mid-1800s to the 1850s). These ventures were, of course, fueled by wars and money: The Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the acquisition of the Territory of Oregon (1848), and the Gold Rush (also in 1848).
As early pioneers settled in the Mississippi Valley, they observed native tribesmen sporting the raccoon hats. For centuries, natives in the region -- the Mound Builders, and later the Sioux -- had followed the spiritual beliefs of the Abenaki people, an Eastern-US tribe that had been largely eradicated by early European settlers. In Abenaki spirituality, animals were often mythologized: According to pictorials, there existed a spirit named Azeban, a “trickster” raccoon who “deceived animals and other beings for food.” When hunting, natives would wear raccoon caps in the hopes that the spirit of Azeban would mischievously attract prey.
By the late 1700s, white settlers had evicted large numbers of indians; simultaneously, they chose to adopt native attire -- including the coonskin cap:
“A pioneer wore moccasins of deer or buffalo skin, thigh-length buckskin leggings, buckskin shirt, and a broad leather belt which held his powder horn, bullet bag, skinning knife and tomahawk…[and a] coonskin cap.”
Native American man wearing a traditional fur hat
Over the next century, the cap became a reigning symbol of the free-spirited American pioneer. A Colliersarticle simply titled “A Coonskin Cap,” recounts a tale from the early 1800s in which an old-school pioneer is swindled out of his land by a railroad tycoon. The court minutes copiously make reference to the man’s coonskin hat -- an allusion to his “steadfast values.” When he loses the case, tragedy unfolds, but because of the hat, the presiding judge takes pity:
“[The man] was found later at his home hanging to the limb of a tree, dead. The coonskin cap was lying at the foot of the tree. The judge, Henry Clay Caldwell, himself a member of the ‘coonksin cap tribe,’ decided then and there to reprise the law.”
As the United States forged forward with expanded railroads, petroleum, and electricity, those who clung to lives of simplicity and solitude were denigrated; by the tail end of the 19th century, the coonskin cap, as a symbol of frontier life, had begun to assume a negative connotation. Anyone who lived outside of a major city was referred to as a “coonskin cap fellow” (an insult similar to “redneck”); in an 1886 Senate committee hearing on interstate commerce, a railroad developer made clear his distaste for the community and its furry hats:
“The class of men to whom I allude as ‘coonskin cap fellows’ are worth but very little to merchants. I do not include in the ‘coonskin cap’ [category] the larger, more respectable, middle class all over the country. These [coonskin cap] fellows, who number in the hundreds of thousands, are worth very little to anyone.”
In 1902, the New York Times adamantly declared the coonskin cap out of fashion and out of favor. “The coonskin hat served a good purpose in its day when there were no fashionable hat stores in the forests,” wrote the fashion critic. “[But now], this cap of our squirrel-shooting grandfathers is relegated to the glass cases holding treasures of the past.” The pioneer, who’d once been defined by “his religion, his politics, his moral code and his coon-skin cap,” was, from that point forward, a character of the past.
Commercialization of the Coonskin Cap
From the 1930s onward, the coonskin cap began to sneak back into society -- but only as a romanticized visage of what it once was.
When Estes Kefauver, a Democrat House member, made his presidential bid in the 1940s, he wore the cap as a political maneuver: After being accused by his rival of “working for the communists with the stealth of a raccoon,” he donned the coonskin at a press conference. "I may be a pet coon,” he proclaimed, “but I'm not [my rival’s] pet coon." He’d go on to win the primary, and the cap became his trademark in every successive election -- he even once paid a sports rival with “a live coon” after losing a football bet.
Hollywood similarly revelled in pioneer nostalgia and pumped out a bevy of 1790s-inspired films featuring the caps. A NYT review of 1939’s Allegheny Uprising, starring a furry-capped John Wayne, was not kind: “It’s a sprawling, confusing costume picture,” wrote the dismayed critic, “which just seems like a lot of actors dressed up in coon-skin hats, wandering around on location.”
Until then, the coonskin cap had only been revived as a semi-joke; in the 1950s, everything changed.
At the time, Walt Disney was trying to find a way to finance the construction of Disneyland, his grand theme park. In 1954, eager to raise funds, he signed a deal for a television series with ABC, and launched a serial titled “Davy Crockett,” chronicling the life and times of the famous frontiersman who’d died at the Battle of the Alamo. “It’s time to get acquainted, or renew acquaintance with, the robust, cheerful, energetic and representative folk heroes," Disney said in a press statement. “Who better than Davy?”
Airing in five one-hour installments from December 1954 to December 1955, the show was insanely popular: Nearly 12 million viewers tuned in to each episode, a full-length, color feature (Davy Crockett, King of the WIld Frontier) was released, and the show’s theme song -- “Ballad of Davy Crockett” -- rose to become a #1 Billboard hit:
The television program heavily romanticized Crockett: He was played by Fess Parker, a hulking, 6’6” actor, and was depicted as someone who routinely killed bears bare-handed and carried the weight of America on his shoulders -- all the while toting a coonskin cap. One particularly amusing legend purported that Crockett was “so persuasive that he could charm a raccoon right out of a tree.” The reality is slightly different. According to most Americana scholars, Davy Crockett was “merely a legend created by commercial American popular culture:” His public career was short and undistinguished, he was an ineffective state legislator, and he was of medium stature.
Ironically, there is also no definitive proof that Davy Crockett -- the real man -- ever wore a raccoon on his head, other than an unsubstantiated statement from his daughter, who recalled seeing him “dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap” just before he embarked to battle Mexican soldiers at the Alamo.
Nonetheless, a Davy Crockett frenzy swept the nation -- and right at the center of the craze was the coonskin cap. Among the likes of the yo-yo, frisbee, Teddy bear, and ouija board, the coonskin topped the Times’ “must-have” toys of the decade. By the end of 1950s, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth ($2.6 billion in 2014 dollars) of “Crocketmania” merchandise -- nearly $10 of product for every US consumer aged 5-14! To put this madness in perspective, Disney's 1958 Zorro craze, which was by all accounts tremendous, grossed only $20 million in merchandise sales.
Some 3,000 Davy Crockett products, ranging from lunch boxes to wristwatches, were released:
“Children wore coonskin caps to school and wore them to bed. They wore them with their Davy Crockett plastic fringe frontier costumes while they played with their Crockett trading cards, their Crockett board games and puzzles, their Crockett color slide sets and their Crockett powder horns. They pestered their parents for Crockett toy muskets and Crockett bubble gum and Crockett rings and comic books.”
“Put on your coonskin caps, kids,” beckoned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper-- and society listened. Far and away, the coonskin hat was the favorite emblem of young Crockett enthusiasts: For a period of three years, 5,000 caps were sold every day. Initially, Disney controlled the market, but unlicensed knock-offs were soon sold in virtually every clothing store in the nation.
Most of these hats were made from real raccoon fur, which subsequently rocketed from 25 cents to $8 per pound. When the "raccoon supply became nonexistent," says one trader, similarly-shaded critters were used as an alternative, according to Time Magazine: "Seattle’s Arctic Fur Company, which has been shrewdly buying up wolf pelts for years, is producing 5,000 ersatz coonskin hats daily."
Fess Parker in his later role of Daniel Boone
Many fondly recall owning the hats.
“I still have the memory of my father buying me a Davy Crockett outfit, complete with a coonskin cap,” evokes Victoria Advocate columnist Lewis Grizzard. Another Crockett fan, Russ Kane, says it was a staple of his childhood:“I was four years old [when the series came out]; I still remember wearing my coonskin cap with its furry tail, as my friends and I pretended to hunt bears and shoot unruly bad guys.”
Mark Graczyk, who was a child in Batavia, New York at the height of the craze, has vivid memories of his city’s “Davy Crockett Day” in 1955:
“An estimated 2,000 youngsters and their parents lined up along Jackson Street in downtown Batavia to enjoy the day's festivities. The Batavia Kresge's store became the city's ‘Davy Crockett headquarters,’ selling Crockett T-shirts and hats for $1 apiece, cap pistols for 69 cents, frontier bags for $2.98 and bill folds for 59 cents. You could buy a package of Davy Crockett cookies for 35 cents or enjoy a Crockett sundae for a quarter at the Kresge's soda fountain.”
Though Fess Parker, the actor who played Crockett, was initially promised a percentage of Disney’s merchandising revenue, the company later tricked him out of millions of dollars due to a loophole in his contract (he’d signed with Walt Disney himself -- not Disney, the company). For the remainder of his career, the actor “never managed to escape the shadow of the coonksin cap:” He was subsequently cast as Daniel Boone (another pioneer who, in reality, “felt that a coonskin cap was adequate only when a good felt hat was not available”).
Parker would eventually retire from acting and buy a vineyard; though his wine label featured “a tiny coonskin cap,” he gruffly refused requests to don the cap himself.
Goodnight, Sweet Coonskin
By 1960, the Davy Crockett fad had largely faded, and with it the coonskin cap. While it made several guest appearances in film and television (The Addams Family, 1964; A Christmas Story, 1983; The Simpsons), things just weren’t the same.
In its time, it had gone from the reigning emblem of anti-consumer frontiersmen to a commercialized poster child of the 1950s. It had donned the heads -- if only briefly -- of famous pioneers and, a century later, had found its way into the wardrobes of millions of admiring American children.
Today, in an era of copious hats, the coonskin doesn’t boast the same presence -- though, it is still primped by a few brave souls. Fashion bloggers in New York have confirmed several sightings of the cap in SoHo and Williamsburg. Earlier this year, R&B star Usher confidently toted one on the Tonight Show, much to the dismay of guest-star Reese Witherspoon and host, Jimmy Fallon. “Guess I am the king of the wild frontier,” he declared, pointing to the squealing studio audience. But even the celebrity was unable to bring back the coonskin: Months later, presumably following the advice of his stylist, he got rid of the cap.
Coonskin caps still sell, as a novelty item. At the Alamo gift shop in Texas, they’re purchased with fervor: Some 15,000 are rung up each year at $12.99 a pop. Specialty fur shops like Arkansas’ Crockett Coon Caps boast “the best coontails available,” and continue to unload hundreds of caps per year.
It’s unlikely that the outdated hat will ever again rise to the status it once held -- though, as history has told us, any trend can be reborn.