Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cowboy Boots--Enduring Through Time

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.
Charles Hyer
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.
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.
Hyer Cowboy Boots
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.  

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 photos used with permission from the Kansas State Historical Society


  1. Kathy, another interesting piece of cowboy history. There are a lot of disputes, actually, over who made the first real pair of cowboy boots; all claimants were in KS, however, the end of the trail when hands were paid. The Coffeyville boot usually wins out, but whichever you go with, they cost a heckuva lot less than the $2600 and up some fancy skins boots cost today.

  2. Hi Andrea,
    I suppose the dates are similar, early 1870's, but I went with Charles Hyer because from what I understood, it took him a few tries before came up with the v-shaped dip, and the sloped heel. If I remember right, the Coffeyville boot had the low flat heel and instead of the V, it was cut higher in the front. One of the great debates I suppose. With so many little custom boot shops, I can only assume we'll never know for sure.
    Thanks for stopping and adding more information to the discussion.

  3. How interesting. I never considered all the 'technical' details of the footwear :) But they are certainly popular, casual or dress, they're impressive. Great post, Kathy and Andrea. Barb Bettis

    1. Hi Barbara,
      I love doing research, especially when I look at something as simple as the cowboy's boots and try to figure out what exactly they looked like when my character wore them.