Title: An array of boots at the F.M. Light & Sons western-wear store in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Library of Congress photographs.
A long, long time ago on this site, I started a thread on cowboy boots. Maybe as long ago as three years, or so. That's not as unusual as it might seem, a lot of threads linger as drafts on this site long before they're published.
19th Century cowboys. their boots are not very visible in this photograph, but where you can see them, they are very high shanked boots.
What is unusual is that I lost it. But I don't think I'd gotten very far in it before I deleted it. So, here we are starting afresh, which in this case is pretty much the same as starting.
I like cowboy boots. I often wear them to my office job, but I've also worn them in the role for which they're actually intended, so I have pretty strong opinions on them. And they're also sort of bizarrely tied into the period which we've been looking at, in the context of how they've changed over time and what we now think they are. I also frankly think that a lot of the history that gets circulated about cowboy boots is frankly wrong.
That history, if you've looked into it at all, generally holds that cowboy boots basically didn't exist until some time after the Civil War, at which time they came into being, sort of all of a sudden, in the 1870s or 1880s. Well, not so much. Indeed, what we call "cowboy boots" had basically been around a lot longer than that.
Yep, I'm claiming that the common story of the cowboy boot is flat out wrong.
I guess, with that being the case, we have first ask, what is a cowboy boot?
Well, in its proper form, a cowboy boot is a pull on riding boot with a high, scalloped, heel that's designed for use in a wooden stirrup. Steel, iron or brass stirrups actually are not the same as wooden stirrups at all, in use, so perhaps we should start there.
Author, riding Wade tree stock saddle, with broad wooden, tin clad, stirrups.
Jonathan Wainright being promoted to General at Ft. Myers Virginia, 1938. Wainright would be transferred to the Philippines prior to World War Two and would go on to serve as a captive of the Japanese after the fall of the island to the Japanese. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here you see the two types of stirrups in use by the U.S. Army at the time. Wainright is riding a flat, English style saddle (likely an officer's pattern then in use) while the two officers next to him are riding M1928 McClellan saddles equipped with wooden stirrups and stirrups hoods. Wainwright's boots are not visible but are most likely the field boot then in use. The officer on the right is wearing M1923 lace up cavalry boots.
Metal stirrups, and wooden stirrups, go relatively far back, although we would do well to note that stirrups themselves came into wide use during the Middle Ages. Indeed, not only did they come into wide use at that time, they were a technological revolution that greatly enhances the fighting ability of a mounted man allowing the Age of Chivalry, i.e., the mounted knight, to basically be possible. This isn't to say there weren't cavalrymen before that. There certainly were, but once the rider could keep his seat with the aid of his feet, his utility and fighting ability was greatly enhanced. Indeed there is a "stirrup theses" that deals with the revolutionary impact of the stirrup upon mounted combat in Europe, and hence upon history in general.
This isn't history of the stirrup, but we should note that relatively early on there were wooden and steel stirrups.
Wide wooden strirrups are a feature of this Wade Tree saddle. Here they are clad with sheet metal on the outside.
Wooden stirrups, as a general rule, tend to be more "rustic". If there's an economy of resources we tend to see wooden stirrups. Saddles are mostly, at least classically, wood and leather, so keeping on keeping on with wooden stirrups makes sense if that's the material you have at hand. And if you don't have that at hand, you probably aren't making any saddles to start with. Assuming that, you don't really need that much metal otherwise.
Leather wrapped wooden stirrups on an Association tree saddle.
Riding with wooden stirrups presents some different considerations than steel stirrups, the principal one for our purpose being that wooden stirrups tend to be quite large. That's fine, but that presents another problem. . . keeping your foot from going through the stirrup. If that happens you have a true disaster in progress.
Why cowboy boots have the shape that they do.
The solution albeit a partial one, for this problem has always been proper footgear. Indeed, proper footgear is or should be a major consideration for any rider. People who ride in tennis shoes should be flogged, as its dangerous.
Cowboy with jeans tucked in boots, using taps over his stirrups. Very traditional set of cowboy gear. This photograph was taken at the 2010 Sheepherders Fair.
Anyhow, the traditional riding boot for wooden stirrups is a high topped boot (which all real riding boots are, as a rule) with high heels made from leather sections, with leather soles, a somewhat pointed toe, and a scalloped heel. The boot is designed as much to let you get your foot out as anything else. That's why its pointed, that's why its normally a leather sole, and that's why the heel is scalloped. If it goes through in a disaster, maybe the scallop will let the boot back out. . . maybe.
Cowboy Ned Coy on "Boy Dick". Coy is wearing a Boss Of The Plains hat and scalloped boots. From the popular threads on hats and caps.
It isn't laced either, due to an economy of resources, because it isn't meant to be walked in all that much, because it is meant to allow your pants to inside the boot, and it might be capable for the boot to be jerked away in a really bad disaster.
This sort of boot has existed for a really, really, long time. And its existed in more than one location for a really long time. Indeed, I've even seen photographs of Afghan riders, well before the tragic Soviet period when things were less mess up there, using a boot roughly of this description.
And I've seen at least one photograph of a Civil War Army officer wearing a boot of this exact type, during the Civil War, with huge rowled spurs.
Don't tell me, therefore, that these came about after the Civil War. They did not.
They were around in some form a long time before the Civil War.
They were popular with riders in the West who were employed in cattle work quite early on for obvious reasons. Western stock saddles uniformly featured wooden stirrups and still tend to. Cowboys, moreover, did very little ground work if they could avoid it. And their horses tended to be rank. A boot of that type is exactly what they needed.
They were distinct, however. Mostly this was because most riding boots in the United States mid 19th Century were low heel, or partially low heel. Most stirrups east of the Mississippi were steel or iron. Not all, but most. And most men who wore boots, and it was mostly men, were were doing a lot of ground work as well. So, most boots reflected that.
Indeed one big user of horses, the U.S. Army, didn't even officially issue a riding type boot until late in the Civil War. Otherwise, it simply issued its ankle high shoe to everyone. That says something about the focus that generally existed on the topic. It probably also says how much more riding had started to go in the service during the Civil War.
Cavalry orderly wearing low topped riding boots. These boots may or may not have been an issue pair, as there was never an official Civil War general issue pattern of cavalry boot.
Union cavalryman, Civil War. He's likely not wearing riding boots at all, but rather the issue ankle high service shoe.
Union cavalry officer. Officers purchased their uniforms, but the pattern of boot shown here became very common during the war and was ultimately issued to enlisted men. High topped, somewhat scalloped heel.
After the Civil War the Army determined to issue riding boots to cavalrymen and started to do so. As I'm not an expert on this topic, and as this isn't the history of the military riding boot of the 19th Century, I won't try to detail it, but a variety of high topped, medium heeled boots were issued all the way through the remainder of the 19th Century until the 1890s, when the service shoe for cavalrymen oddly came back in.
Detail from Edgar Paxson's meticulously researched Custer's Last Stand. Paxon here depicts the cavalry boot in use in 1876 very well. A very high topped boot than ran up over the knee to protect the knee, square toes (they had no left or right) and slightly high heels. This boot, while a good design, was commonly regarded as uncomfortable by soldiers which may, in part, have been because they were built by Federal prisoners who had, therefore, relatively low motivation.
The common story on the cowboy boot accordingly holds that men went home wearing their boots from the Union and Confederate armies and then went into livestock work, and the cowboy boots was born.
Not so much.
For one thing, the story is really probably more the other way around. Confederate cavalry men were at first drawn from stock working men anyhow and they were already wearing riding boots. If the boots made it through the war, a doubtful proposition, they just went home wearing what they'd left with. If their boots wore out, they would have been lucky to get a good replacement pair of riding boots. No doubt some did, but those boots would have been of no discernible pattern and they would have really just been riding boots.
Amongst the very first cowboys driving north Southerners would have been more common than Northerners, but not for long. Be that as it may, it 's highly doubtful that piles of Union riding boots ended up being worn by discharged Union cavalrymen turned cowboys. And as noted, riding boots had been around for eons prior to the Civil War with all of their basic details well established. It was the Army that was slow to adopt them.
Cowboys near chuck and supply wagon.
Rather, after the Civil War the frontier opened up for cattle and the cowboy came onto the Plains. He was wearing riding boots, and riding a wooden stirrup saddle that was evolved, but not much, from those used by vacqueros in Texas and Mexico. Their boots reflected that, and fairly rapidly they became to take on some distinct features, although perhaps not as distinct as we might suppose.
It might be noted, and probably should be noted, that cowboy boots are one item that cowboys did not adopt from vaqueros and caballeros. Mexican agricultural horsemen did not wear cowboy boots, but rather an ankle high pointed toe, moderate heeled, boot. That's a bit surprising, but when we consider how they dressed perhaps it is not as surprising as it might at first seem. They tended to wear leather leggins below the knee for protection if they needed it, and they also wore both chapaderos and later half chaps, known to Western horsemen as chaps and chinks, for protection. They also wore wool clothing almost uniformly. While I don't know t hat its related, living and working in a hot environment, the high topped boots may have been less attractive to them than to riders further north. Additionally, most Mexican cowboy gear actually uses an economy of leather, leather being the product which Mexican cattle were actually raised for, and that may have reflected itself in their boots design. Leather economy can impact boots permanently, as we shall shortly see.
Emiliano Zapata (seated, center) and his staff. There's a mix of clothing here, as there typically is in photos of Mexican revolutionaries (the figure on the far left is wearing a type of boot that darned near resembles one we'll address later, the packer) but all the seated men are wearing botin charro, a type of ankle high, pointed toe, riding boot.
So the scalloped heeled boot came to be strongly identified with cowboys, and at the same time cowboys, who tended to invest a lot of their tiny income in their gear, that being their hat, their boots, and their saddle, sometimes bought cowboy boots that had elemental elements. Farmers didn't buy boots that had any ornamental elements, in contrast. Spending a lot of money on their limited equipment, they wanted it to look good and distinct when they could. And that caused the Mexican influenced ornamental stitching on cowboy boots to come about. While it does create a distinct appearance, the boots are really only slightly evolved from other riding boots in common use in the mid 19th Century.
My regular cowboy boots. The ones I wear to work, when I wear cowboy boots to work.
My working cowboy boots.
And of course Americans became fascinated with cowboys quite early on.
Cowboy boots basically assumed that form quite early, and indeed they retain it if they're really traditional boots. A working 20th Century cowboy with high shank boots could walk into a 19th Century camp and pretty much not have anyone take much notice of his footgear, assuming that he went for something relatively traditional.
Well, like a lot of things, the boots changed as a result of a war. World War One to be exact.
Stretching leather, about 1915.
Because World War Two was such a colossal war, and because we tend to simply accept the line that the United States was the "arsenal of democracy" during the Great War, we have a pretty skewed concept of American production in the World War One time frame. Simply put, it was a mess.
Not only was the Army trying to raise a force, at breakneck speed (more rapidly by quite some measure than during World War Two) but it was trying to deploy it overnight. It was also trying to equip it overnight. The peacetime Army didn't have anywhere near the amount of stuff necessary to equip the huge Army that the US was trying to raise, equip, ship and deploy in 1917.
And this included leather goods.
The US didn't really even know what it needed in the way of leather goods, so it let out contracts for things like saddles and boots in absurdly large numbers. There's a real reason that M1904 McClellan saddles are so common. They made so darned many. Same with boots, the numbers made were astounding. Absurd, even.
With that sort of demand going on for leather goods, the supply became very strained, and cowboy boots were the victims of that. The leather for high topped boots just wasn't there. So, as a wartime measure, bootmakers introduced the "stubbie" or "pee wee" boot, which is what most people, at least those who aren't cowboys, wear today.
Tom Mix, 1919. Mix was an actor, not a cowboy by trade, although the World War One veteran did buy a ranch in Wyoming after the war and he actually ranched here. Anyhow, actors make notoriously bad examples of what cowboys actual wore, and this is no exception. The hat is far too large for anything outside of Texas (where sugarloaf sombreros were really large), the pistols are M1873 cavalry models, which had 7" barrels and which were not favored by cowboys, who instead favorted the 5" artillery model. the pants are way too tight. The boots, moreover, are peewees. The heels, however, are just right for the era, and not uncommon amongst working cowhands now.
That was the wartime solution. And it impacted how the boots were actually worn. Prior to WWI cowboys normally tucked their trouser in their boots, and they still sometimes will, as the photo posted above shows. This was the routine habit, although sometimes they'd pull their pants down over their boots. Having worn boots both ways while riding, if I'm going to ride for a long time, I'll tuck them in. More comfortable, for the long haul.
But you really can't do that very well with pee wees, and cowboys who had to buy new boots during the war were embarrassed by the economy of leather and how it looked, so they took to pulling their pants down over their boots. Better to wear out your pants and get them dirty than to look like a boofador.
Traditional boots do not go on as easy as peewees. And you'll want some high socks if you wear them also. My Olathe traditional mule hide cowboy boots.
And in truth mid height boots worked out okay for a lot of working applications. So the peewee, unless it was really low, quit being a mark of shame and became the common boot fairly quickly, save for the ones that had really low tops (which some did). By the 1920s a boot like that sported by Tom Mix above was pretty common, probably more common than the kind that ran to the knee. With the spread of this sort of boot on the range, and in town, cowboy boots really entered sort of a new era. The old style kept on keeping on, but a new style, worn by a lot of people in town, arrived.
These aren't cowboy boots, they're Wellingtons. Marketed, however, as "Ropers".
All along a similar low shanked ridingp with your heels, down with your head boot was around as well, the Wellington. Named after the Duke of Wellington, who favored them, Wellingtons' were a peewee variant of the common Riding Boot, that boot worn by those who rode flat, or "English", saddles. Low topped, and low heeled, they always had a following amonst those who rode a bit or who rode flat saddles but whom didn't favor the knee high boot generally worn by those who used steel stirrups. They were quite similar, in some fashion, with some of the lower shanked boots worn by Army officers in the 1860s through the 1890s, and therefore had a natural retained following there. Some European armies, including the English Army, flat out adopted them as riding boots. At some point in the 20th Century, and at least by the 1940s, the U.S. Army allowed them as alternative footgear for dress wear and they became particularly popular with pilots as dress gear. So much so, in fact, that after the USAF was officially separated from the Army after World War Two black Wellingtons were allowed as private purchase dress shoes for officers.
Working rancher with very low heeled boots, perhaps Wellingtons.
The popularity of Wellingtons plateaued however until some marketing genius at the Justin company thought of re-branding them as "Ropers'. Where this idea came from is anyone idea, but it was a marketing stroke of genius. With the rebranding Wellingtons crossed over into the cowboy boot market and someawht remain there. Their popularity seems to have diminished a bit, but then boots with "walking heels" have increased in popularity as well, with those two boot types occupying each others niche, more or less.
While on this topic, let us dispel the notion that the type of rubber or synthetic boot the English call "wellies" are Wellingtons. They are not. Apparently the name "Wellington" was applied to them at some point due to a purely superficial relationship they bore to real Wellingtons. The British users truncated that name to "wellies", but whatever they are, they are not Wellingtons. The Duke of Wellington would not be pleased if you thought so.
Wellington at Waterloo. Seriously, the man was not wearing rubber boots.
With cowboy boots as fashion, we do of course see varieties of them. In some eras, the 50s in particularly it seems to me, the toes became very narrow. In others, the toes are fairly round. Square toes were very common in 19th Century boots and have recently returned. Originally, that was a manufacturing item, as square toes were easy to manufacture and with some boots and shoes there was no left or right. Now, it's just a matter of fashion.
Working rancher with a pair of cowboy boots with a walking heel.
Heel height waxes and wanes as well, although with modern boots you don't seen the really high "doggin" (ie bulldogging) heel nearly as much as you did in earlier eras. You still see them, however. As noted, "walking heels", which are basically a conventional shoe heel, are now also common and you see them in use even by working hands. Every now and then, however, doggin heels will enjoy a comeback, and they never really go away. As noted, working hands will wear them, and in towns more than a few folks wear lower riding heels.
Indeed, I suppose only a tiny fraction of cowboy boots are worn by people who actually ride. For that reason it'd be interesting to take a census of actual working hands and see what they wear. By my casual observation, really high topped boots are more common with working hands than a person might suppose, which makes sense. Medium height boots are fairly common as well, but you do see stubbies and ropers out there, as the photos in this thread attest to. In town, of course, most folks aren't wearing the really high boots like I do. Indeed, I'd guess only a tiny fraction of people who wear cowboy boots in town do that.
Cowboy boots aren't the only riding boots, of course, and we'll deal with that on a later thread, to the extent its relevant to this site and the period of time it focuses on. But cowboy boots are interesting in general, so in looking at footgear, we've started off here.