Cowboy boots became the subject of “the official State Boot of Texas” legislation in 2007. There is no precise date of origin for the cowboy boot; it was adapted from military boots. The term “cowboy boots” dates from the 1880s and 1890s.
Texas Monthly (January 2000)
Art of the Boot
by Tyler Beard
Before and after the Civil War, cowboys wore whatever they could afford or what they walked away from the war in. Early daguerreotype photographs show groups of cowboys wearing a sundry of clothing and footwear. Cowboys wore all kinds of boots, one example being the Wellington, a boot of British origin dating from 1810 and popularized by Arthur Wellsley, the first duke of Wellington, following his defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The Wellington boot is usually described as a plain boot commonly in black leather or sometimes brown. Typically these boots had side seams, one-inch stacked straight heels, square or slightly rounded toes, and leather pull-on straps. There was usually no decorative stitching. The tops were either cut straight across or curved slightly higher in the front. The Wellington was basically utilitarian footwear that sprang from British influence and immigration.
Cowboys were also wearing at this time the Hessian boot, an under-the-knee boot with a V-cut in the front. This boot was introduced in England about 1785 by German dandies imitating the military footwear of the Hessian soldiers, named after the city-state of Hesse. Because Hessian soldiers fought in the American Revolutionary War, this style actually received some popularity before the Wellington. Some of the original Hessian boots were distinguished by a large silk or leather tassel that hung down in the V-cut in the front of the boot. This military detail was not popular with cowboys, but its influences are still evident today in the short-top boots worn by high school and college drum majorettes and drill teams. In the most famous photograph of Billy the Kid, circa 1879, he is shown with his trousers tucked in, wearing a medium-high-heeled Hessian boot with its typical front V-cut (minus the tassel) and with pull straps flopping on the outside of the boot.
We know that by 1870 John Cubine, in Coffeyville, Kansas, had combined the Wellington and military-style boots in what is known today as the Coffeyville-style boot. The Coffeyville boot is usually described as not having a specific right or left foot; as being constructed from unlined, waxed, flesh-side out leather, usually in black; having leather pull straps, a low Cuban heel, slightly rounded square toes, a fully pegged sole; and the front of the boot, or the “graft,” being considerably higher than the back. Not always but usually the graft was a different color of leather—brown or a deep red. Accounts from the time describe Coffeyville boots made for Texas cowboys with a cutout five-point lone star inlaid in the center of the graft. There is no reason to doubt that these star-styled Coffeyville boots were made; Texas cowboys were having Texas stars put on everything. Yet not one example of this boot from the 1860s or ‘70s is known to exist.
A History of the Western Boot
by D.W.Frommer II
By 1870 the standard boot worn by frontier horsemen was, essentially, a variation of military issue. The Coffeyville pattern, as it was called, had a higher Cuban heel (scooped instead of straight in profile); and the front of the boot, despite being basically a full wellington, was often grafted. Indeed, this grafting or piecing of the front of the boot is almost the distinguishing characteristic of many non-military boots. This is not too surprising given that all boots, whether made for military issue or as bespoke (custom) footwear, were made by civilian makers during this time.
By the 1880’s the cowboy boot, as a separate style, was beginning to emerge. Now we begin to see stovepipe tops, star and horseshoe inlays, stitch patterns and high heels. By 1900 the four piece boot had become the dominant form—probably as a response to the difficulty of construction with a full wellington, an emerging standard of fit that was somewhat more precise than heretofore, and the fact that, historically, the four piece wellington had been reserved for wealthier customers. Styles, of course, did change with the times. Many are the variations of color and decoration. Heights of heel and top have come and gone; and subtle regional variations have also emerged, so that today, for an experienced eye, there is a marked difference in the Texas boot and the northern boot and perhaps, even the Great Basin boot. For those familiar with western boots, there are presently four major variations of the historical cowboy boot. There is the four piece—the dress wellington—which, as we have seen, evolved from the full wellington in the 1800’s. Of course, there is the full wellington itself, which is still around and being made by a few custom makers, both in historical and contemporary configurations.
Then there is the packer. As was mentioned, the lace-up was common on the American frontier. Enlisted men were less likely to be career men and often mustered out of the service in the west. There are the historical photographs of cowboys sitting on the top rail of the corral watching a hand ride out a bronc. In not a few of these photographs the men wearing lace-ups outnumber the men wearing traditional western boots. Hyer Boot Company, in their 1926 catalogue offers at least three pages of lace-up styles—for the ranch hand . The final and fourth style, which is often called the Hollywood or tejas style, has it s roots in military issue just the same as the wellington, but comes a little later in time. In 1887, the military began to issue a different style of boot. Like an English riding boot, they had a seam running up the back of the boot rather than up the side as in the traditional wellington. And in fact, by 1889, the officers boot looked almost identical to the English style. This pattern remained standard issue until the army abandoned the horse and horse units shortly after the 1st World War. However, this pattern gave rise to a three piece western boot with a one piece top and a seam running up the back of the leg as in the military boot. Because the leg of the boot—the top—presents a large canvas for decorative work, some of the most beautiful and refined work ever done by western bootmakers was applied to this style. All through the 30’s and 40’s (the Hollywood era) the tejas enjoyed a great popularity. But it is a difficult style of boot to make especially if done as a boot and not as a variation of the shoe. That, combined with a cyclical shift towards more conservative styles, caused the tejas to be relegated to near obscurity.
Hyer Cowboy Boots
The Hyer Boot Company was founded circa 1880 by brothers Charles and Edward Hyer. As boys they learned boot making from their father, William, a German immigrant who began practicing shoemaking after he came to the United States in the mid-1800s. Charles moved to Olathe in 1872 where he found work at the Olathe School for the Deaf teaching shoe and harness making. He opened a small cobbling shop on the side and hired his brother Edward to help him run it.
Tradition credits Charles Hyer as one of the first to invent the cowboy boot. Company promotional materials state that a Colorado cowboy stopped by the Hyer shop on his way home from the Kansas City stockyards in 1875, requesting a new pair of boots that were different from his Civil War-style boots. He wanted a boot with a pointed toe that would slide more easily into a stirrup, a high, slanted heel that would hold a stirrup, and a high top with scalloped front and back so he could get in and out of his boots more easily. Charles accepted the challenge. The unknown cowboy was so pleased with Hyer’s work that he returned to Colorado and told others about his new boots.
By: Bohac H.C.R. No. 132
WHEREAS, The State of Texas boasts a richly diverse cultural heritage, and through the years it has adopted a number of tangible representations of that heritage as official symbols; and
WHEREAS, For nearly a century, the cowboy boot has enjoyed a special status as one of the most treasured of Texas icons; and
WHEREAS, Although riding boots date back for centuries, and although ranches first appeared in Texas during the Spanish colonial era, the basic pattern of the cowboy boot was forged in the crucible of the post-Civil War trail drives; between 1866 and 1890, mounted cowboys drove millions of head of Texas cattle to northern and western markets along such famous trails as the Chisholm, Western, and Goodnight-Loving; and
WHEREAS, Boot makers in Texas and Kansas responded to suggestions from those cowboys regarding the design of their footwear, and a slimmer boot with a higher heel, more rounded toe, and rounded, reinforced instep began to be developed; and
WHEREAS, During the course of the 20th century, cowboy boots gained a mass appeal that ultimately extended to foreign lands; this popularity was driven by an enthusiasm for the West that was fostered in the 1920s and 1930s by radio shows and movie serials and in the post-World War II decades by rodeos and dude ranches; the public’s fascination with cowboys and their apparel has also been fired by movie screen idols such as Tom Mix, by entertainers such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans, and, in recent years, by movies such as Urban Cowboy and Silverado; and
WHEREAS, The lore of the cowboy boot is replete with the names of Texas boot makers who have contributed to the emergence of that boot as a distinct type, as well as to the continuing development of their craft; one of the most influential of the early boot makers was H. J. “Big Daddy Joe” Justin, who set up a boot repair shop in Spanish Fort, just off the Chisholm Trail in Montague County, in 1879; within a decade, Mr. Justin became one of the first to offer cowboy boots by mail order; and
WHEREAS, Other Texas boot makers whose businesses gained national prominence were Mr. Justin’s daughter, Enid Justin Steltzer, who established the Nocona Boot Company in Nocona in 1925, Sam Lucchese, who founded the Lucchese Boot and Shoe Factory in San Antonio in 1883, and Tony Lama, who began with a shoe repair shop in El Paso in 1912; and
WHEREAS, Smaller establishments also hold an honored place in the annals of the cowboy boot; in 2002, more than 100 cowboy-boot makers were plying their trade in this state, many of them revered by connoisseurs who were willing to wait for periods of a year or more for a custom pair; these artisans were making boots for everyone from working cowboys to sports and entertainment celebrities and heads of state; and
WHEREAS, While they hew to a basic form, cowboy boots have evolved into an amazingly versatile article; fashioned with a variety of toe and heel styles, types of leather, and embellishment, they can be worn today on virtually any occasion; so remarkable has been their diversity that they have been the subject of several coffee-table books and at least two exhibitions: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon; and
WHEREAS, An integral part of cowboy gear, cowboy boots played a valued role in one of the defining chapters in Texas history and continue to figure in the mythic romance of the Lone Star State; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the 80th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby designate the cowboy boot as the official State Boot of Texas.
3 October 1885, Dallas Morning News, pg. 2:
Light complexion, 5 feet 7 inches high, weight 145 pounds, moustache, light clothes, cowboy appearance, and had a small foot and cowboy boots.
7 December 1890, Columbus Enquirer-Sun, “Fair Alice Out in Texas,” pg. 3:
He had heavy, high-heeled cowboy boots outside his trowsers, and he fell over the girl’s feet, his own and everybody else’s finally tripping them both up, when they retired from the fray, their inglorious retreat gracefully covered by the prompter with a “grand right and left.”
29 January 1897, New Oxford (PA) Item, pg. 6, col. 2:
He wore a pair of old cowboy boots, upon which were buckled the inevitable spurr, clanging and jingling in time to his mustang’s quick little steps.
25 June 1897, Deming (NM) Headlight, pg. 11:
Second Prize: pair of cowboy boots made by Bolich.