As you might expect, the history of cowboy boots is full of legends and lore. To be honest, no one really knows exactly who originally invented the cowboy boot—but, most agree the first pair of cowboy boots was made by a shoemaker in either Texas or Kansas (depending on who you ask), but regardless of where the story’s the same.
Whether in Texas or Kansas, the history of cowboy boots begins with the end of the Civil War in 1865. Driving their cattle cross-country, the cowboys’ military boots weren’t a great fit for the conditions. The boots issued to them during the war weren’t cut out for riding in stirrups for long hours on the trails through brush, brambles, and creeks. So, one cowboy decided to do something about it—as a cowboy does.
In 1870-something, one resourceful cowboy stopped by a local shoemaker and asked him to make a different kind of boot. He wanted a higher top to protect his legs from snakes, thorns, and other perils of the trail, and he wanted them scalloped in front and back so he could pull them on easily. He also wanted them loose enough on top that he could pull his foot out if he got hung up and needed to get out of them in a hurry. He wanted a pointed toe for sliding into the stirrup more easily, and a high, slanted heel that would hold onto the stirrup on those long, rough cattle drives.
The cowboy-specific features didn’t end there. The shoemaker constructed the new boots with thick leather to protect the cowboy’s ankles from bruising against his wooden stirrups, as well as to keep his legs from rubbing against the stirrup leathers. The stitching remained on the outside of the boots to keep the leather from buckling and rubbing against the cowboy’s leg from the inside.
Designed as a practical tool, the first cowboy boots were low on style but high on function—and they functioned so well, they spread like wildfire. Cowboy boots were always made by hand, but shoemakers tried to streamline their processes to make production as efficient as possible. Originally, cowboys and ranchers had to visit a cobbler to be custom fit; eventually, mail-order boot companies emerged, although custom fit boots understandably remained the preference for those who could afford it.
The history of cowboy boots took a turn the 1930s and 40s, when the influence of Hollywood and growing popularity of Western films brought a whole new dimension to the cowboy life in general—and to cowboy boots in particular. What began as pure practicality evolved into a fashion statement. While maintaining their practical function, the plain look of cowboy boots gave way to colorful stitching and sewn-on designs and pictures. Bootmakers began experimenting with hand tooling, patterned stitching, and colorful designs to keep up with the demand inspired by the “fashion-forward” boots worn by John Wayne and Gregory Peck.
Over the next several decades, the amount of flair ebbed and flowed with the trends. Today, cowboy boots can be found in all manner of styles, not to mention types of leather (cowhide, alligator, ostrich, snakeskin, bison, and buffalo, to name a few). And though their history is as long and varied as the trails they’d ride, a good pair of cowboy boots is still like the cowboy: practical. Hardworking. And a little rough around the edges.