The Cowboy's Boots

By Dr. Richard W. Slatta, the Cowboy Professor at North Carolina State University

  • Cowboy Boots and Spurs Along with his wide-brimmed hat, a cowboy's boots are the most identifiable part of his dress. Like the remainder of his dress, the cowboy's boot was designed and crafted to help the cowboy ride. The narrow, pointed toe of the boot slipped quickly into the stirrup. The high heel hugged the stirrup and prevented the cowboy's foot from sliding through. Boots came well up the calf to protect the leg from brush and thorns. Boots fit tightly, making them uncomfortable for walking. But then a cowboy would sooner die than walk, anyhow, so walking comfort played no role in boot design or selection.
  • Mexican Charro Cowboys in Texas and the Southwest, of course, saw the boots and spurs used by Mexican vaqueros and charros. Long skilled in leather work, Hispanic horsemen had developed wonderful tooled and beautiful silver and leather clothing and tack. "Bootlore" (or perhaps "footlore") credits "Big Daddy Joe" Justin with making the first Anglo boots at Spanish Fort, Texas. His family became so successful that "Justins" became a western synonym for boots just as Stetson meant hat. Today the bootmaking company that bears his name produces 3.5 millions pairs a year.
  • Working from Hispanic and British models, Anglo cowboys put their own special stamp on things. In The Cowboy Boot Book (1992), an entertaining and delightfully illustrated study, Tyler Beard summarizes the boot's evolution. "Cowboys originally wore every type of shoe and boot known to man. It was these cattle drives after the Civil War that made them realize what sort of boot they needed. When they reached Kansas, with its small boot and shoe shops, the cowboy and the bootmaker slowly created the various types of boots suitable for cowboy work and attractive to cowboy vanity."
  • boots The "Coffeyville boot" became popular style just after the Civil War. Made in the Kansas town of the same name, the boot drew its inspiration from the English Wellington and U. S. Cavalry footwear. Large mule-ear bootstraps aided a man in pulling them on. The name well describes the shape of these leather pull straps stitched to the outside tops of the boots.
  • Cowboy fashion changes albeit slowly and modestly. During the 1870s, new taller styles appeared, (14 to 17 inches high. Cowboys and ranchers wore "cattleman," "stovepipe," and "drover" styles. Heels got higher, reaching as high as four inches or so. Toes might be "square-box" or "round-coin." Most cowboys favored the latter, because the sharp edges on box-toed boots wore out more quickly.
  • David Dary (Cowboy Culture) describes the impact of Texas trail drivers on the Kansas boot industry of the 1870s.
    Many cowboys bought new clothes when they reached the end of the trail. Many also purchased new boots. The Texans seem to have preferred custom-made boots. In Abilene, Tom C. McInerney employed as many as twenty men in his boot shop during the summer months to meet the demand. His boots were high-heeled, red-topped, with tolled Lone Stars and crescent moons. They sold for $12 to $20 a pair.
  • brand If he could afford it, a cowboy would save up to purchase "custom-mades," boots fitted and constructed exactly to his feet. A bootmaker would take the necessary measurements and construct the "shot-mades." During the 1880s less expensive ready-mades became available by mail order. A hand would really have to be down on his luck to wear "stogies," cheap, second-hand boots. It's hard to say which would be more painful, the humiliation or the blisters from boots shaped to someone else's foot.
  • Despite increased ornament and decoration, boot style remains functional. Take the "wrinkles," for example, the fancy stitching across the vamp of a boot. This stitching makes the vamp (the part covering the top of the foot) more flexible and comfortable than solid, stiff leather. Because the leather flexes with the wrinkles, it does not become creased and bumpy.
  • In the twentieth century, movie and rodeo cowboys raised the boot from the mundane to the exotic. Twenties silent film star Tom Mix who intricately tooled boots. He tucked his pants inside the boots, better to show off the artwork. Singing cowboy Gene Autry emulated the style as he rose to fame in the thirties and forties. Celebrity demand for unique and artistic boots created a market for high-end bootmakers for the stars.
  • Riding into the SunsetOne would be hard-pressed to find a shoestore that does not stock cowboy boots today. Heel height today generally ranges from a conservative 1-inch walking heel up a two inch high heel. Brand names range from no-names to Justin, Tony Lama, Hyer, Acme (which also includes Dan Post, Lucchese, and Dingo), Nocona, Rocketbuster, and many more. Styles, color, stitching, material? Anything is possible. Custom bootmakers can fashion wonderfully individualized boots, perfectly appropriate for the symbol of American individualism, the cowboy. And you can be sure cowboys would rather die with their boots on!
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