The Panama Hat, the famous white hat with the characteristic black band, is made of very thin straw from the toquilla palm which grows in the tropical coastal area of Ecuador.
The hats are handwoven and lightweight which makes them comfortable to wear. The finest examples of these famous hats were being worn by great statesmen like Churchill, Roosevelt, and Napoleon.
What is most interesting about these hats is that not a single Panama hat in history has originated from Panama. All Panama hats are made in Ecuador.
Most of them are made in the city of Cuenca or in the small villages in the vicinity of Montecristi. Although imitations of the hat are made in Mexico, Japan, and Taiwan, all real Panama hats hail from Ecuador.
Panama hats are Ecuador’s most iconic souvenir, yet their name is attached to the country whose strip of land connects Central and South America.
There are more than one theories why the hats were named after the place where they were sold instead of their place of manufacture.
In the mid-1850s, during the Gold Rush in the United States, Panama became a center of trade and transport. At that time, tourism was not yet developed in Ecuador and Ecuador exported its hats to Panama to sell from there.
At that time there wasn’t any stamp on the hats or label that said “Made in Ecuador,” so the people that bought them thought that they were made in Panama.
When Americans that lived on the East coast wanted to go to California in search of gold, many of them traveled by boat through Panama since it was a lot faster than to go across the United States.
Many of those that traveled through Panama bought these hats and returned to the United States wearing them. When people asked them where they bought the hats, they said Panama.
While the Panama Canal was built in 1881, the construction workers wore these lightweight hats to protect themselves from the sun.
The Panama hats became even more popularized when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing one during a visit to the Panama Canal in 1906.
When that photo of Theodore Roosevelt was published in the newspapers, the hat was mistakenly called a Panama hat.
In Ecuador, the hats are known as “sombreros de paja toquilla” (toquilla straw hats), a reference to the raw material used in their manufacture: the leaves of the toquilla palm.
There are factories in Cuenca that produce Panama hats and tourists visit these factories where they can see how the products are made. All of the hats in the factories are handmade.
But the best hats are made in the village of Montecristi. Only 2,000 hats are produced here every year.
Although a lot of fake paper-made “Panama hats” are sold on the market, many people acknowledge and appreciate the quality and beauty of the one and only original Panama hat from Ecuador.