Myths & Legends: Panama Hats

Every family history has a large number of myths and legends.  This is the first in a series of posts about the little stories that are or aren’t true.

The Myth

According to my Grandad’s notes, my gg-grandfather Robert William Black was the first to import panama hats to New Zealand.  Robert William worked in his father Robert Black’s haberdashery and drapery shop, the Criterion, in Christchurch.  In 1872 he was sent to Ireland to get married.  On the way he passed through Panama and supposedly bought some hats.

Here’s how Grandad summed it up:

By family account, he was provided with money to buy stock for the shop while he was abroad and at Panama he bought a large quantity of panama hats, said to be unknown in NZ at that time.  When he learned of this, his father was very angry, accused his son of ruining the business and so forth.  However, Robt Wm disagreed, claiming that the hats would be popular with harvesters and in the event they were sold at a good profit.  So, the Black family claims credit for introducing the panama hat into NZ.

The Truth

Robert was a prolific advertiser.  The first ads in Christchurch’s The Press after Robert William’s return mention his shopping trip but do not mention panama hats.  Perhaps this is how his father showed his displeasure.

5-4-1873 The Press

Source: Papers Past – Press, Volume XXI, Issue 2393, 5 April 1873, Page 1

Or perhaps they weren’t that “new” to New Zealand.  A quick search of Papers Past finds panama hats for sale in Nelson in 1855!

Panama Hats 29-9-1855 Nelson Chronicle

Source:  Papers Past – Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, Volume XIV, Issue 53, 29 September 1855, Page 1

But they were being sold by a Black!!!!  Just not one of ours (so far!).

So Panama Hats – debunked

Robert William was right about them being good for those who worked in the sun as an advert in the New Zealand Tablet in 1873 “proves”:

Panama Hats 1-11-1873 New Zealand Tablet

Source: Papers Past – New Zealand Tablet, Volume I, Issue 27, 1 November 1873, Page 6

All you needed to know about panama hats from Wikipedia.


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