Top 25 "It" products of all time: #3 -- Davy Crockett Coonskin Caps

Davy Crockett may conjure images of huntin', fishin', and campin', but he was actually a national craze born from same marketing machine that pumped up crowds for the opening of Disneyland. In a mere five episodes, the frontiersman went from historical footnote to a folk hero and fashion trendsetter.

By the end of 1955, Americans had snapped up an astonishing $300 million in Crockett souvenirs, and three versions of the new song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" hit Billboard's Top Ten simultaneously. Crockett was a phenomenon, and his character spawned a modern fashion must-have: the faux-fur coonskin cap with the raccoon tail.

For a few years, no self-respecting little kid would be seen without one. Which was ironic, considering that the cap was actually a Native American fashion accessory, and that the real Crockett didn't even like them. He wore European fabrics.

Davy Crockett, the one of the fad, was the result of heavy promotion by Walt Disney. You see, in the early '50s, Disney decided that he wanted to open an amusement park, and to make sure he'd could convince enough patrons to trek all the way down to the orange groves of Anaheim, he went to the boardrooms of the TV network ABC.

Disney convinced ABC to partly fund his new park in exchange for a weekly TV program. Conveniently, the show allowed Disney to promote the hell out of the themed lands he planned to surround his central Sleeping Beauty Castle, so by the time Disneyland cut the ribbon, there would be masses of TV fans lined up at the gates. In one of the earliest examples of a cross-promotional blitz, were synergistic shows based on Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Adventureland. But the ones on Frontierland sparked a national craze.

Disney needed a thoroughly American icon to push as a new hero. A nation emerging from McCarthyism and terrified of Russia was thirsty for a non-political American icon. He found one in David Crockett. The mostly forgotten Tennessee Congressman, who died at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, fit the bill.

Although Western stories had been popular fare for decades, Davy Crockett brought the genre to a boiling point, seeping into every segment of mass culture from TV to movies to pop music to a wide array of toys. Every kid who grew up in the '50s was steeped in the mythology of those red-white-and-blue gods Earp, Kid, and the Lone Ranger, and heard campfire tales of showdowns at modern temples like the O.K. Corral and the Ponderosa. The children of World War II veterans, who killed real men, were handed toy guns for their playthings.

These days, most of the mid-century Westerns that were once considered appropriate family fare are generally recognized as racist hokum based on apocryphal history. By the time Lee Marvin broke out into song in Paint Your Wagon, the traditional Hollywood Western was dead, and because most of us have such shaky grasps of our American history, it took frontier tales with it.

Although you may still burn calories paddling yourself in the Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes at Disneyland, most of the old legend's vestiges have been quietly swept away. Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island, originally pitched to the Western craze, has become pirate-themed. Pirates are the cowboys of our age. At Walt Disney World in Florida, one of the only places you can find a coonskin cap (hanging on a lonely hat rack in the back of a store) is actually in the Canada pavilion at Epcot.

Thanks to that Cold War, America-first fad, the coonskin cap has entrenched itself as a symbol for a frontiersman. You know it's true: Look at Jebediah Springfield, the parody of a frontiersman, on The Simpsons.

Davy Crockett may be perceived as a powerful symbol of American fortitude along the now-vanished frontier, but in reality the national craze he inspired is more a testament to the power of television, synergy, and calculated myth-building. If marketing and consumerism could be considered the modern American frontier, perhaps there's a poetry in that.


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