Crockett’s Coonskin Cap Craze
The first episode of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier roared onto television screens on December 15, 1954. While Davy Crockett certainly had gained fame before Disney, the show ignited a so-called “Crockett craze,” resulting in the mass production of a multitude of Crockett products, the most popular and most enduring of all, Crockett’s coonskin cap (Lofaro 147).
Manufacturers made the caps for Disney with authentic raccoon fur, setting the retail price $1.98 (Lofaro 140; Young). Disney never copyrighted the title Davy Crockett, however, and several unaffiliated companies made the caps and sold them across the country, at the same time that 44 different companies produced official Disney merchandise in 14 states (Lofaro 140; Exhibitor’s Campaign Book 13). In fact, two companies specialized in manufacturing the coonskin caps, the George S. Bailey Hat Company in Los Angeles and the Weathermac Corporation in New York City (Exhibitor’s Campaign Book 13). The Crockett craze, while it lasted, garnered about $300 million in profit and much enthusiasm from young and old alike (Lofaro 143). Crockett-themed gifts dominated the Christmas toy market of 1954, and the following year earned the nickname “Year of the Coonskin Cap” (Jones). Retailers sold more Crockett products in 1955 than any other competing name-brand merchandise (Cooper). However, by the end of 1955, the craze faded; stores moved Crockett merchandise to dusty storerooms to make space for the next trend, except in certain cities such as San Antonio (Lofaro 143).
Davy Crockett’s fame helped to make the Alamo and San Antonio a desirable tourist destination (Reddell). The allure of the Alamo and Crockett drew 20 million tourists to the mission site in 2005, and gift shop sales accounted for ninety-two percent of the Alamo’s operating budget of $5 million that year. While no one could calculate the exact percentage of this cost paid for by coonskin cap profits, sales exhibited how the coonskin cap had retained its position as a popular souvenir fifty years after the initial craze. In 2009, the Alamo Gift Museum ordered 1,000 children- and adult-sized coonskin caps each month, with the exception of March through August, the busiest months, when the order increased to 2,000 coonskin caps. In all, the Alamo Gift Museum ordered 18,000 caps in 2009. Sold for $8.95 each, the caps consisted of synthetic fur, although the Alamo Gift Museum also sold authentic coonskin caps for $69.99 each, with sales of four to five caps per month (Mastrangelo). At other stores around the Alamo, such as Outwest and Plaza Market Place, the synthetic coonskin caps’ sold for $6.95 each. Coonskin caps, “definitely one of the biggest sellers” in the area, sell “by the jillions,” according to Diane Fliehman, a manager of the Alamo’s gift shop (Smith; Finely). In December 2009 alone, the Alamo Gift Museum sold 500 coonskin caps, and at the end of the month, the shop had 1458 caps on hand ready for sale (Mastrangelo).
Beyond its importance to San Antonio’s tourism industry, Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap also earned a place in San Antonio’s mythology, with an image so ingrained into the Alamo City that it became hard to separate the coonskin cap from San Antonio (Smith). With the exception of the Alamo itself, the caps grew into the most recognizable symbol of Crockett. While Crockett personalized the Alamo, the coonskin cap personalized him, making him a more recognizable and accessible figure and the “most popular of Texas heroes” (Winders; Turner).
Although the coonskin cap craze initially drew children because it allowed them “to feel like Davy Crockett,” the coonskin caps ultimately remained popular because of Americans’ urge “to identify with national history” (Smith; Lofaro 147). The original Disney television show premiered eight years after World War II, answering “some inchoate longings in the postwar American psyche for a hero to worship” (Jones). At the time, the American public desired and needed the veneration of a man who believed in “liberty and independence forever” (Jones; Crockett 373). To many, the caps evolved into a symbol of heroism. They embodied “rugged frontier independence and self-reliance,” recalling the early American spirit of wilderness individualism so proudly looked back upon by many (Winders). Crockett reflected the common person, rising from humble origins to earn a place in history. The simple coonskin cap captured the inspiring, restless spirit of the legendary Davy Crockett, and for that reason, coonskin caps remained firmly rooted in San Antonio’s heritage.
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Exhibitor’s Campaign Book. San Antonio, Texas: Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library,1955. Print.
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Mastrangelo, Mary Jo. “Re: Crockett’s coonskin cap’s popularity.” Message to the author. 31 Dec. 2009. E-mail.
Reddell, Bill. “Davy Critic Hits with Envy Showing.” Dallas Morning News 27 June 1995. Print.
Smith, David. Personal Interview. 24 Nov. 2009.
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Young, Kevin R. “King of the Wild Frontier.” Champaign News Gazette 4 Feb. 2005. Print.