Suddenly Tennessee is all over the media. Expulsions and bannings and shootings, oh my!
There hasn’t been so much attention paid to Tennessee since the Davy Crockett craze of the mid-1950s.
It’s made me nostalgic for my hand-me-down coonskin cap.
Thanks to Walt Disney, in the summer of 1955 America went c-a-crazy over Tennessee legend Davy Crockett the coonskin-capped, bear wrestling, folk hero, who was never caught dead without his reliable “Old Betsy” 40-caliber rifle.
Baby Boomers were positively obsessed with an American frontiersman who died more than 100 years before they were born.
The Davy Crockett coonskin cap that millions of boys and girls lusted after was inspired by the fur headgear worn by buckskin-clad, actor Fess Parker as the fabled 19th-century frontiersman, in a series of five programs that were broadcast as part of the Disneyland television series. Airing in five one-hour installments from December 1954 to December 1955, the show was insanely popular: Nearly 12 million viewers tuned in to each episode.
And just as many wanted the official Frontier gear merchandise.
From Time May 23, 1955:
“Ever since February U.S. youngsters have swooped down on U.S. stores like marauding Indians, snapping up everything in sight that faintly resembles what Davy Crockett wore. To U.S. retailers, there has been no kiddie craze to match it since Hopalong Cassidy clattered into the corral five years ago. Sales of Davy Crockett coonskin caps, blue jeans, cap pistols, lunch boxes and dozens of other items, have already reached an estimated $100 million.”
Children wore coonskin caps to school and wore them to bed.
They wore them with their Davy Crockett plastic fringe frontier costumes while they played with their Crockett trading cards, their Crockett board games and puzzles, their Crockett color slide sets and their Crockett powder horns. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were packed in Crockett lunch boxes, and time was kept on Crocker watches.
Their beds were covered in Crocker bedspreads and they slept in their official frontier pajamas. Children even eagerly washed their faces if it was a Crockett label soap and towel. They pestered their parents for Crockett toy muskets and Crockett bubble gum and Crockett rings and comic books.
All told some 3,000 Davy Crockett products ranging from lunch boxes to wristwatches, were released.
It may very well be the most profitable fad Gen Z has never heard of.
Kings of the Frontier
1955 was dubbed by Time Magazine as “The Year of the Coon Skin Hat.”
Crockett frenzy was in full force.
Not noted by Time was the fact that it was also the year I was born, and the year my urban N.Y. parents ventured out into their own new frontier – the wild suburban plains of Western Long Island. Articles branded new homeowners like my parents as “Brave Suburbanites Are Today’s Davy Crockett’s.”
That August my family moved into our newly built ranch house on a newly paved street appropriately named Western Park Drive. At 5 months old, I may have seemed oblivious to popular culture but through osmosis, it was absorbed. All around me Davy Crockett’s life and death were endlessly replayed in backyards up and down my development.
Little boys with their faux fur raccoon caps, the tails bouncing up and down chased after one another hunting for pretend bears with their official Old Betsy rifles. Little girls had their own cooncaps marketed just for them called “Polly Crocketts” made of white fur. Neighborhood teens might have been swooning over Elvis, but boys were transfixed by a tall and handsome Fess Parker as King of the Wild Frontier.
The TV program portrayed Crockett as a frontier Superman. Played by Parker a hulking 6’6” actor, Davy was depicted as someone who routinely killed bears bare-handed, pursued truth and justice, and carried the weight of America on his shoulders.
Far and away, the coonskin hat was the favorite emblem of young Crockett enthusiasts. For cold war kids, the caps embodied rugged frontier self-reliance and the American spirit of individualism.
Ironically the coonskin cap had already been identified with a current Tennessean politician Estes Kefauver but it was Davy Crockett that put it on the head of 1 out of 3 boys.
For a period of three years, 5,000 caps were sold every day.
Initially, Disney controlled the market, but unlicensed knock-offs were soon sold in virtually every clothing store in the nation.
Most of these hats were made from real raccoon fur, which subsequently rocketed from 25 cents to $8 per pound. To meet the demand, department stores, in a flurry of fur coat re-use, repurposed the material for hats from unsold raccoon fur coats, adding the coon tails to make the signature frontier accessories.
When the “raccoon supply became nonexistent,” said one trader, similarly-shaded critters were used as an alternative, according to Time Magazine. “Seattle’s Arctic Fur Company, which has been shrewdly buying up wolf pelts for years, is producing 5,000 ersatz coonskin hats daily.”
The Ballad Of Baby Sally
To my surprise, coonskin caps were not made in infants’ sizes so I never got my own baby-size cap. But as noted in my baby book, wiggling a raccoon tail in front of my face was a surefire way to elicit a giggle.
When I cried, I didn’t seem to respond at all to the choruses of “Rock a Bye Baby,” my mother always claimed, but the constant sound of neighborhood children singing that drifted in through the open screened windows would quickly settle me down into blissful sleep:
“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee. Greenest state in the land of the free. Raised in the woods so he knew every tree. Kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3. Davyyyyy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.”
The 45 RPM record was also well played on our little portable record player. The sound of Tennesse Ernie Ford’s folksy rendition still soothes.
When it wasn’t played to put babies to sleep The Ballad of Davy Crockett, was the song of the summer. making Your Hit Parade for 40 straight weeks, including three months at No. 1.
The real ballad of Davy Crockett though may have been as fanciful as my mother’s anecdote.
The TV program heavily romanticized Davy Crockett.
Though the symbol of a self-sufficient frontiersman was pure catnip to cold war America sensibility, the reality is slightly different. Ironically there is no definitive proof that Davy Crockett-the real man- ever wore a raccoon hat. According to most American historians, Davy Crockett was “ merely a legend created by commercial American pop culture.
Like Disney, Crocket himself was a master at myth-making retelling his story about frontier life in Tennessee in a series of popular Almanacs published in the 1830s.
Crockett was portrayed as an American Hercules —wading the Mississippi, steering an alligator up Niagara Falls, straddling a streak of lightning, wringing the tail of a comet, and kicking the sun loose from its frozen axis.
The real David Crockett may well have perished at the Alamo, but the legendary Davy Crockett was just beginning to live.
Davy Crocker was, in essence, a nineteenth-century celebrity—perhaps the first American to make a living portraying his own fanciful image.
He didn’t kill a bear when he was three, didn’t care much for fighting Indians, didn’t look like Fess Parker, in fact, portraits of him depict a stocky, middle-aged businessman of medium stature, and he didn’t go down swinging Old Betsy at the Alamo.
He left his favorite rifle in Tennessee.
Uncle Walt turned Crockett’s name into a brand and turned the Tennessean’s checkered path into an economic boom.
Sadly all fads sizzle, out but Uncle Walt had another one ready to launch.
The frontier fad lasted throughout the summer and into the next school year. In October, Disney premiered The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, which started a whole new trend in children’s headgear: Mouse ears.
Soon the black felt Mouse Ears would supplant the coonskin cap in the hearts of baby boom children.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Loved this, well written. It brought back some fun memories, though I was born in 1962 the Davie Crockett show was a staple!
Im so glad you enjoyed this piece. Though the frenzy was fairly short lived, the fascination with Davy Crockett lived on for quite some time.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I remember those coonskin hats 🙂
This is great stuff. I don’t remember having a Davy Crockett stuff but I’m sure I must have. The photos are amazing too, and speak volumes–especially that top one!
Suburban gunslingers were the norm. In context to today it seems unimaginable.
Today when everything is merchandized to death, this was a novelty and it really was a phenomenon never seen before.
I live this and I love this post. For my fourth birthday in 1956, my mom baked two cakes. One approximating a coonskin cap, the other a log cabin. I was thrilled and sported my cap and tee shirt for the occasion. Your photos are precious. Your informative post brings it back as if it was yesterday and gives me a renewed appreciation for the Crocket craze as a pop culture/marketing milestone. I wrote about it in grad school, but your research puts my effort to shame.
Its hard to imagine the enormous impact this craze had. It blew any other sales out the window and made in today’s money several billion dollars in sales. I’m so glad this could bring up sweet memories from your own childhood.
Following what had happened in Louisville, Kentucky.
The timing of posting this was jarring in light of the shooting. In fact Im doing a post about that in the next few days.
“Davy, Davy Crockett king of the wild frontier…” Sang that song throughout my teens.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Its burned into our consciousness!
Reblogged this on Journalism as Art and commented:
Must Read: Though the symbol of a self-sufficient frontiersman was pure catnip to cold war America sensibility, the reality is slightly different. Ironically there is no definitive proof that Davy Crockett-the real man- ever wore a raccoon hat. According to most American historians, Davy Crockett was “ merely a legend created by commercial American pop culture.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, Dennis for the repost!