What style of hats did BC gold rush miners wear in the 1850s and 1860s?
In the Victorian era, everyone wore hats. It was unheard of for people to go outside without a hat. To go out ‘baldheaded’ meant also to be unprepared. There were hats for almost every occasion.
Considering that the vast majority of gold seekers who came to British Columbia during the Fraser River gold rush were from California, it is helpful to look at what hats they wore.
By the mid 1850s, Californians had copied and adapted the Mexican ‘vaqueros’ hats which had a very wide brim and a soft crown.
From these, came the wide brim hats made of felt or straw. The Placer Herald newspaper related a story from the Fraser River — two miners lost their mining utensils so they used their hats to pan for gold! They must’ve been wearing very wide brimmed hats.
Paintings by Edward Richardson and William Hind show miners wearing soft crowned hats with wide brims that could be turned up or down to shield out the sun or rain if needed. Hats, like the rest of a miner’s clothing had to be durable.
In England, a broad-brimmed hat was known as the ‘wideawake’ hat so called because it had no fuzzy surface or ‘nap’. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any reference to it by name until the late 1800s. Perhaps there is a hat story behind the coffee saloon at Barkerville known as ‘Wake Up’ Jake.
One of the best descriptions of gold rush miners in the 1860s comes from the recollections of artist Eleanor Fellows:
“Sombrero on head, bowie-knife in small back trouser pocket, revolvers in broad sash or ample waist-belt, the loose blouse we used to call a “garibaldi” clothing the upper person, the long “gum” boots reaching to the knees which enabled their wearer to work with impunity in water for hours, the tightly-rolled blanket and gold mining implements upon the back and shoulders…”
The sombrero or ‘California hat’ was adapted into other shaped hats. From the sombrero came ‘Sugar loaf’ felt hats. They got that name because sugar was sold in tall cone-shaped loaves. Sugar loaf hats were often seen worn by teamsters who had to walk behind oxen and mules laden with tons of provisions.
Teamsters often wore handkerchiefs to stop the sweat from trickling into their eyes or over their mouths to stop from inhaling dust kicked up by the oxen.
The paja toquilla hat or Panama hat which originally came from Ecuador and had been worn for hundreds of years was also popular with gold miners. These were made from straw. J.A. McCrea listed “genuine Panama hats” for sale on August 3, 1863 in an ad which appeared in the Daily Colonist newspaper.
Many Chinese miners wore woven hats made of reeds. The hat itself had a shape similar to an inverted basket. It was perched on top of the head.
Chinese gold seekers who came here to British Columbia were known in Chinese as gum saan haak.
Bowler hats came into production in England in 1850 and eventually were sold here. If you look through pictures of Barkerville or other Cariboo gold rush towns in the 1860s, you will see dignified suited men wearing bowler hats. A bowler hat was durable and hard like a helmet.