Great to be here, Anna.
When you picture the hero of a historical western, what kind of boots do you see him wearing?
Boots worn by cowboys during the mid-nineteenth century looked nothing like the boots worn today.
They were about seventeen inches high, coming almost to the knee and ended in a horizontal line, like a stove pipe. They often had wide square toes and low heels. No fancy leathers or stitching were used. These boots were most often black, made of calf skin and were snug fitting. At the top, “mule ears,” which were thin leather pull-on straps, hung down on either side of the boot.
These early cowboy boots added to the protection of the chaps, guarding against dust and gravel, prickly pear and sticker bushes, and also shielded the ankles from rattlesnake bites.
Then in 1875, a cowboy on his way home from the Kansas City stockyards, stopped by a cobbler shop in Olathe, Kansas. He wanted a boot that was different from his Civil War-style boots. He wanted something that would easily slip in and out of the stirrup, with a slanted heel, and a high top with V-shaped front and back, so he could take his boots on and off without difficulty.
The owner of the shop, Charles Hyer had come to Olathe in 1872 where he found a job teaching shoe and harness making at the Olathe School for the Deaf. Charles, who had learned boot making from his father William, opened a cobbler shop on the side and hired his brother to help him run it. http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/hyer-boot-company/12093
The cowboy was so pleased with Hyer’s work that he returned to Colorado and told others about his new boots.
These early cowboy boots were fairly plain. Any fancy stitching was limited to the boot tops, but this was not common. The floppy mule-ear straps were replaced with a pair of leather pull-ons, sewn into the top inside of the boot on each side, so that they extended above the tops about two inches.
Nearly all these new boots were made of black calf leather and the toe was more rounded than pointed. https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-hyer-cowboy-boots/10301
Cowboys who roped cattle on foot found the high, thin-bottomed heels dug into the ground and helped them keep their balance. The usual, forward sloping heel was about two inches high, but some boots were made with a square heel, like cavalry boots. The insoles were thin so riders could feel the stirrups.
These boots had vamps of the best quality. They fit tight around the instep and this gave the boot its primary hold.
Most boots were made in small shops that catered to cowboy trade. By 1885, however boot makers began adding intricately stitched designs, cut-outs, and color to the footwear.
Pegged boots used hardwood pegs to secure the foot portion of the boot to the sole and cost a few dollars more than sewn boots.
Cowboys who wanted custom made boots gave the boot maker a paper tracing of his foot along with his instep measurements. He could spend as much as he wanted for boots, but very few men felt the need to invest a great deal in their footwear. Some cowboys had their boots made to order, but many bought them ready-made.
Boots were usually the most expensive item in his wardrobe. Prices varied from 7.00 for ready-made, to 15.00 for made-to-measure.
For a time the cowboy boot was the most popular footwear in the West, but by the mid 1890’s the boot had been replaced in many locations with heavy-duty shoes. Cowboys were no longer willing to pay 15.00 for a pair of boots. They wanted substance instead of show and boot makers grew worried that the most popular footwear in the west would become obsolete.
Hard to believe, isn’t it. I don’t think they’ll ever go out of style. Do you?
Enss, Chris, How the West Was Worn, Two Dots, Morris Book Publishing, LLC., 2006
Foster-Harris, William, The Look of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007
Moulton, Candy, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West from 1840-1900, Writer’s Digest Books, 1999
Rickey, Don Jr., $Horse, $40 Saddle, Cowboy Clothing, Arms, Tools and Horse Gear of the 1880’s, The Old Army Press, 1976
Rollins, Philip Ashton, The Cowboy, His Characteristics, His Equipment, and His Part in the Development of the Old West, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2007
Kansapedia Kansas Historical Society http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/hyer-boot-company/12093 photos used with permission from the Kansas State Historical Society
In my historical western novel, A Tarnished Knight, the first thing the heroine, Victoria notices about the hero, Ryder MacKenzie, are his boots.
“How long before the stage gets here?”
The stationmaster shrugged. “An hour or so after sunup.”
“You have any work needs doing?”
“Broke again, MacKenzie?”
MacKenzie stiffened and glanced her way.
She switched her attention back to her knitting.
“I need a horse.”
“Goin’ after them rustlers?”
“No. I got word on Hiram Everett, and I need a good horse to go after him. Reckon I’d be grateful to hitch a ride out to Bud Parks place. I hear he’s got quality mounts.”
The stationmaster snorted. “Hear he charges pretty damn good for ’em, too.” He spit a gob of brown into a dented Wells Fargo spittoon on the floor.
“Okay, MacKenzie.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I’d just as soon stay dry today. Switch the teams along the way an’ when Charlie gets here, I’ll let ya ride inside to Parks’ place.”
“Obliged to you, Sid.”
Victoria glanced up to see MacKenzie coming toward her. He lowered himself to the floor on her left. With a low groan, he crossed his ankles and arms, then leaned against the log wall and closed his eyes.
He remained motionless, less than an arm’s length away as the gloom faded and morning light seeped through the tiny windows on either side of the door. She had the oddest sensation he was guarding her, like some great English Mastiff, lying at her feet. She looped the yarn around the tip of her needle. She was being ridiculous. This MacKenzie was on his way to purchase a horse, nothing more. He obviously had no interest in her.
Mary turned a page in her book.
Nicholas hadn’t hired him to track Victoria down. She gave herself a mental shake and glanced at MacKenzie. His chin had dropped to his chest, and soft snores rumbled in his throat.
Bits of hay clung to the wool of his vest as if he’d spent the night in a barn. Unlike the many westerners she’d seen, he didn’t wear his dark canvas pants tucked into his boots, and now the hems were wet and splattered with mud and pieces of chaff. The heels and soles of his scuffed brown boots were also coated with dried mud. But it was his spurs that captured her interest.
They were made of steel with medium sized rowels, and the leather straps which buttoned over the arch of his boots were plain, without any fancy tooling or silver embellishments. But it was the buttons themselves that intrigued her, for they were fashioned in the shape of small hearts.
What kind of man wore spurs with little hearts?
Someone gentle and kind, with a good heart and—Stop it, she admonished herself. When would she learn? Look where her girlhood fantasies had landed her. This man had probably killed the kind and gentle man and stolen those spurs. The romantic stories her grandmother had filled her head with were just that—stories.
She stuffed her needles and the sock she’d been working on into her small knitting bag, set it on the bench, then rose to stretch and move around a bit.
The stationmaster, Sid, walked over and kicked the bottom of MacKenzie’s boot.
He groaned and rolled to his feet.
“The horses for this run are in the first corral.”
“Any of them green?”
“Nah. They’ll take the harness without a bit of trouble.” Sid followed MacKenzie across the room, waiting while he pulled on his poncho. “Tack’s in the barn.” Sid continued his instructions, telling MacKenzie which horses to pair together.
MacKenzie nodded, put on his hat, then stepped into the rain.
Kathy Otten is the author of three historical romance novels and numerous short stories and novellas. Her newest short story, After the Dark, is coming soon from The Wild Rose Press. She is currently working on a Civil War novel as well as a contemporary young adult novel. In March she will be teaching the on-line workshop, What Do Your Characters Fear Most, at Savvy Authors. In April she will be teaching Fiction Writing in the New Century, at the Higher Education Center in Corry, PA.
Kathy has three grown children and lives in the rolling farmland of western New York with her husband of thirty-two years. She loves hearing from her fans and you may contact her through her website at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or visit her website at http://www.kathyotten.com