Panama City, Panama
Despite being the figurehead of the word Panlibhonco, perhaps Panama’s greatest claim to etymological fame is the humble Panama hat – a style of high-topped and broad-brimmed straw hat, traditionally made from the dried leaves of the fantastically named jipijapa palm. Lightweight and breathable, the Panama is a popular choice of headgear in the tropical climate of Central and South America. It’s just a shame that, despite its name, it’s not actually from Panama.
The hats we now know as Panamas actually originated in Ecuador, seven hundred miles away, where a cottage industry built around weaving what were then known as toquilla hats (made from the leaves of local toquilla palms) emerged in the seventeenth century.
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These hats soon proved popular among locals and colonists alike, but failed to catch on much outside Latin America until the early nineteenth century. It was then, in the mid 1830s, that a Spanish entrepreneur named Manuel Alfaro arrived in the Ecuadorian city of Montecristi and, seeing commercial potential in the local straw hats, began to establish a chain of producers and sellers that could bring the hat to a broader market. Alfaro’s trade route connected the local plantation workers and weavers in Ecuador, via the port of Guayaquil on Ecuador’s southwest coast, with the ports on the Pacific coast of Panama. As more explorers, colonists and, later, gold prospectors arrived in the area – requiring a hat to shield themselves from the sun, while keeping their heads cool and ventilated – his business flourished, and the production of the hats expanded northwards into Central America, and southwards into the Andes.
By the 1840s, the hats had attracted the attention of traders in Panama, and were beginning to make their way back to Europe:
Are you aware of the beauties of a Panama hat? It is of fine straw -straw so fine and so exquisitely plaited, that it appears to be of one united glossy nature. It is as soft as silk, and as strong as chain-mail, and as elastic as caoutchouc. If you are caught in a shower of rain and your Panama gets wet through, you have only to wring it out as though it were a towel, and hang it on your walking-stick to dry, and in a quarter of an hour it will have regained its pristine shape. The Spaniards declare that a Panama is shot-proof, and an infallible protection against sunstroke; but of these assertions I have my doubts. The life of a Panama hat may be measured by that of a raven. It is supposed never to wear out.
The Panama hat might not really have been bulletproof, but it was long-lasting and certainly popular. Unfortunately for poor old Ecuador, however, as the style’s popularity grew, it took with it to Europe the name of the country from which it was sold and exported, rather than the country in which it had been invented and manufactured. As a result, it’s as the Panama, rather than the Ecuador, that the hat has been known ever since.
That’s also the reason why our next destination isn’t Ecuador but rather its much larger neighbour to the south.
The toquilla’s taxonomic name, Carludovica palmata, was given to the plant by Spanish botanists visiting Spain’s South American colonies in the late eighteenth century. It was intended to combine the name of the then king of Spain, Carlos IV, and his consort Queen Ludovica.