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. The handwoven hats, made with straw from the toquilla palm plant that is endemic to Ecuador’s Pacific coast, have been made in Ecuador for centuries and can be traced back to the Incas. So why, then, are they called Panama hats?
There are several theories as to why, and it is probably true that each theory has contributed to its reputation in some way. One major factor was Panama’s position as a center for trade and transport, especially in the mid-1850s during the Gold Rush in the United States. At the time, Ecuador did not see much tourism or trade, so it exported its hats to Panama to sell from there. Additionally, Ecuador did not have the technology to be able to mark the hats with a stamp or label that said “Made in Ecuador,” so people assumed the hats were made in the the same country they were bought in.
When thousands of North Americans on the east coast went in search of gold in California, many traveled by boat through Panama to get there, as it was a quicker option than traveling across the United States via land. Many of these American travelers bought the straw hats while passing through Panama and returned to the United States with their new accessory. When asked where they got their fine woven hats, people said Panama.
In 1881, the 23-year project to build the Panama Canal began. Many of the workers who constructed the Panama Canal wore the hats to fend off the strong sun, adding to its association with Panama. These hats were perfect for the job since they are lightweight and breathable. The Panama hat gained even more fame when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in one of the straw hats while visiting the Panama Canal in 1906. The photo was widely published in the U.S. and was mistakenly called a Panama hat; from that point on, the name “Panama hat” really stuck.
Others claim that the travelers passing through the Panama Canal over time who wore the hat gave it its name, rather than the canal workers or President Teddy Roosevelt. No matter what you believe the real origin or continued use of the term “Panama hat” for the Ecuadorian-made product is, there is no doubt that these hats are made in Ecuador, primarily in and around Cuenca and on the coast in towns like Montecristi and Jipijapa (which is why the hat was actually technically called a Jipijapa hat).