Remembering The Coonskin Cap
The Coonskin Cap
The origins of the coonskin cap can be traced back to the early Native Americans. Many tribal hunters wore the animal pelt hats as part of camouflage, to blend in to the surrounding when hunting. In some tribes the coonskin cap could be used to show status of importance amongst other tribal members. As European settlers began to colonize, what we now call the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, they quickly adopted the use of the coonskin cap as a part of hunting attire.
Many famous frontier heroes and legends have been associated with the coonskin cap, but probably the first two name that sprang to mind were Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett (or actually actor Fess Parker). According to folklore, neither gentleman actually wore a coonskin cap as commonly portrayed.
It is believe that the whole image was started by a young actor who was portraying a frontiersman, in order to promote a popular song of the 1820’s, that helped to create the iconic persona of the frontiersman we envision today. The rugged, eagle-eyed, flint-lock rifle toting adveturer wearing moccasins, buckskins, and a coonskin cap.
Incidentlly, the real life Davy Crockett would only wear a coonskin hat when making public appearances, outside of that he didn't wear the carcass cap. And I hate to burst your childhood hero bubble even more, but Daniel Boone had no love at all for the coonskin cap, he preferred wearing the gentlemenly felt hat instead.
A Brilliant Bit Of Marketing, and America's First Cold War Fad
The real popularity of the coonskin cap came in late 1954 with a nudge from Walt Disney's "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter," which starred newcomer actor, Fess Parker. The coonskin cap worn by Parker's character became the highest selling piece of Davy Crockett merchandise; $100 million in coonskin hats were sold. The caps were wildly popular with young children, mainly boys, but even some adults jumped on the bandwagon. Among the adult sporting the furball hat was Presidential candidate Senator Estes Kefauver, who, wore one on many public appearances.
Basically, the coonskin cap is made out of the furry body of a raccoon, complete with the animal's tail. Sometimes the head of the raccoon is left intact and placed on the front section of the cap. The hats were so popular that there was actually a raccoon tails shortage, causing people to try using muskrat, rabbit, and fox tails. The coonskin cap craze continued into the 1960’s with the help of television series, again starring Fess Parker, based on the adventures of Daniel Boone. As all things must come to an end, by the end of the 1960s, young people began to take their fashion cues from other sources.
Today, the coonskin cap is still available, but usually is manufactured with materials other than actual raccoon tails, skin or fur.
" Davy Crockett" - TV Theme Song
Fess Up, Parker
Fess Parker's portrayal of pioneer, Davy Crockett, carried a long rifle named Betsy and wore a coonskin cap. The official Davy Crockett coonskin cap (that retailed for $1.98) wasn't made from raccoon pelt, but rabbit fur; and had a cardboard tag displaying the image of Fess Parker. The folks at Life magazine commented on the coonskin cap craze by stating, "Which will be exhausted first; the supply of raccoons or the parents who have to buy the caps?"
Disney's television program "Davy Crockett" starring Fess Parker, made Crockett into one of the most popular men in the country, and the frontier hero was portrayed wearing a coonskin cap. The show spawned several Disney Davy Crockett sequels as well as similar shows and movies (many of them featuring Parker as the lead actor). Fess Parker went on to star in the Daniel Boone television series from 1964 to 1970, again wearing a coonskin cap.
The iconic cap was marketed towards young boys and was usually a faux fur lined skullcap with a raccoon tail attached. A variation was marketed to young girls as the Polly Crockett hat, which included the long tail, but was made of all-white fur (faux or possibly rabbit). At the peak of the fad, coonskin caps sold 5,000 caps a day and the price of raccoon fur rose from 25 cents a pound to $8.00 a pound.
Celluloid Hero Still
The coonskin cap is still a huge part cultural image lexicon. Today movies, television, and comics still pay tribute to the iconic pioneer carcass cap. The coonskin cap can be seen as part of "The Junior Woodchucks" uniform in Disney's Donald Duck comics. In the 1983 film A Christmas Story, which features various cultural artifacts of American childhood from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, depicts bully Scott Farcus (and his yellow eyes) wearing a coonskin cap. In television cartoon The Simpsons the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the early 19th-century founder of the fictional town of Springfield, is wearing a coonskin cap. And even Florida politician Lawton Chiles put on a coonskin cap while celebrating his 1994 gubernatorial re-election victory over Republican Jeb Bush, recalling a campaign statement in which Chiles had predicted victory by saying "the old he-coon walks just before the light of day."
Daniel Boone Theme Song
Is Television Stronger Than Reality?
The fact is, coonskin caps were historically correct. Native Americans wore them, as did frontiersmen. The debate is still open on whether or not Davy Crockett actually wore one, who can say for sure. Even though Davy actually had many great accomplishments... the image of the coonskin cap is still the first thing anyone thinks of, when his name is mentioned.
Daniel Boone hated animals skin hats, and wore a felt hat instead. Luckily Fess Parker took a bit of artistic artistic license with Daniel Boone's image, because Fess just didn't looked like he could pull-off wearing bowler.
If you want to get your hands on a genuine Davy Crockett hat, you can buy one directly from Fess, who is now a renowned vintner. The Fess Parker Pinot Noir is pretty damn good, if memory serves me well.
Disney's series Davy Crockett was actually a marketing machine that created a national craze to pump up crowds, and boost ticket sales for the opening of Disneyland. Davy Crockett in just five episodes, went from historical frontiersman, and folk hero to a fashion icon. By the end of 1955, over $300 million in Crockett souvenirs were sold, and three versions of the song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" were on Billboard's Top Ten.
Disney needed an American icon to push as a new hero. The nation was bruised from McCarthyism and terrified of Russia. Walt found a hero in David Crockett, a mostly forgotten Tennessee Congressman, who died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, to fit the bill. Thanks to Disney American children had their first Cold War fad, and the coonskin cap has a symbol of an American- frontiersman hero.
How to Make a Coonskin Cap Part 1
How To Make Your Very Own Coonskin Cap From Scratch
1) To make a coon skin hat you will need a large skin that is free of bald spots and blemishes. The tail should be well marked and full. If you have a large head, it may be tough to find a single coon big enough for the job. If that's the case, cut the circle and face from one and cut all your bands from another. Remember to check the hair patterns so that the hair is always going from head to tail of the cap. Use a heavy grocery bag or cardboard to cut your pattern so that you can tape them together to be sure you have the fit you want. You may find that you like a somewhat elongated crown (about an inch longer than it is wide) as opposed to the round pattern described next.
2) To begin, cut a 4 inch wide band of cardboard and place it around your head. Mark where it touches and then add an extra 0.5-inches to allow for a seam. Cut the excess from this band. Now measure the length which is the circumference of your head. Take your circumference measurement and divide it by 3.1417 (pi) for the diameter of your head. Finally, divide the diameter in half and using that radius, scribe and cut a circle out of cardboard.
3) Lay your hide out flat, fur down. Fold the head straight up and lay your cardboard circle flat down directly behind the center of the face. With a marking pencil, mark you circle. Now cut your cardboard band into two equal pieces. Lay a half on each side of the circle going from head to tail and mark it. Note: You will not have enough hair up front! Mark your cardboard band exactly where you run out of fur. Carefully cut around the coon's face and stop when you hit an intersecting line. Cut the marks on the bands but DO NOT cut them free of the circle.
4) When you finish, the cap top, coon face, and parts of both bands will be attached to each other. Put your bands on the remaining fur the same way (head to tail) and cut band strips to complete your cardboard pattern. Remember to try to match the grain and color of the two smaller pieces of the headband to the larger headband pieces.
5) When your pattern pieces are cut join them together with pins and place them on the flesh side of the skin with the largest piece of the headband centered opposite of the head. With a fine needle and nylon thread begin sewing the bands around the circle top stitch using a blanket stitch. Start at the rear part of the headband and stitch in the crown.
6) When you add the extra pieces to complete the hat band make sure sure that the hair is flowing the same direction as the attached bands and join them with smaller stitches so the joined fur will appear to be a single piece. Be careful not to pull the thread too tight or you may cut the leather.
7) Using a sharp knife, slice the base of the tail 1\3 of the way on each side. Then blanket-stitch the tail together into a tubular shape all the way down its length. Once your hat is finished, sew the tail directly opposite of the coon face.
8) When the coon skin hat is complete you can add a satin lining by using the same pattern but cut the entire headband as one solid piece and the crown separate. Turn the fur hat inside out and the satin lining right side out then stitch them together around the skins lower edge. When this is complete, push the lining into the inside of the fur hat and it is ready to wear.
If you want to make a coon skin hat but prefer not to hunt for the skin, most area leather shops will be able to get the fur for you.