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Surprisingly, Panama hats did not originate in the country of Panama. Straw Panama hats began as a product of Ecuador, a country located 775.2 miles (1,247.56347 km) to the south of Panama. Even though they are a product of Ecuador, Panama hats get their name from the fact that in the bustling era of trade in the 1800s, the hats were first shipped to the Isthmus of Panama for increased commercial exposure.
The hats were made for centuries before they ever became known as “Panamas.” In fact, some historians claim that the woven straw Panama hats have a history as far back as the ancient Incas, although this claim cannot be verified. It was during the mid 1800s that the Panama hat gained its popularity. In the United States, the simple straw hat was a favorite of the gold rush miners of 1849 as they made their way to California by way of Panama. Internationally, the hat was introduced around mid-century to the World's Fair in Paris, causing an even bigger surge in popularity.
The biggest boost to the popularity of the straw Panama hats came at the turn of the 19th century, when United States President Theodore Roosevelt wore the stylish woven hat as he spoke to the press. Countries around the world took notice of the straw Panama hats and began to manufacture and export their own versions; the country of Turkey even declared the Panama hat its officially mandated headgear in 1925. By the 1940s, the popularity of the straw hats had hit its peak, and then began to decline.
Unlike other types of hats that are worn and prized for their warmth, straw Panama hats are revered for their lightweight, breathable qualities. This is due in part to the fact that Panama hats are woven from the fibers of a tropical palm tree, Carludovica Palmata, sometimes called Toquilla. The fibers are first dried and strengthened before the weaving process begins, and later the hat is woven and blocked, or moistened and left to dry in its intended shape. Like other woven products, the quality of straw Panama hats is determined by the thread count, despite the fact that the hats are not made of thread. A hat that has fewer than 100 fibers per inch is usually considered to be of lower quality than a hat with a higher count.
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