Speaking of the American cowboy, people will instantly think of Texas. It’s the hometown of the cowboy, sharing the reputation in the United States and around the world. Hollywood films, with their romantic lens, gave western cowboy a blaze of publicity, leaving the audience with the impression of valor and vigor, uprightness and chivalry.
screen shot of Stagecoach
Yet, there may exist a deception:
The picture of the cowboy in our mind may not correspond with the cowboy in reality in American history.
First of all, real cowboys are not all handsome white men, but heterogeneously consisting of white, black, Indian, Mexican, and other races. Their life is not always covered by a romantic and chivalrous veil. The daily life of a cowboy is, in fact, very mundane, with their daily work concerning mainly patrolling and enclosing. Patrolling means patrolling along the border of the ranch every day to prevent cattle from running out and also from “outsider cattle” from sneaking in, and more importantly, to guard against rustlers. The work of enclosing is different in spring and autumn. In spring, enclosing is mainly to brand newborn calves. When autumn comes, they pick out fat cattle for sale. With all these arduous tasks, cowboys' skin darkens and roughens year by year, and their legs have been deformed due to the long-time riding on horses.
screen shot of The Rider
The myth of the cowboy was first publicized through Beadle’s Dime Novels. In this book, cowboys were depicted as handsome, strong, and masculine. This impression was carried on to the cowboy image in the film and television play, in which cowboys always rode on a horse, wearing a cool western hat and riding boots and carrying a gun with them to fight against bandits. More often than not, they ended up protecting a beautiful lady and falling in love together. But things were nor the same in reality. Real cowboys were hired by ranch owner to some physical work: driving away other people’s cattle and driving back cattle of the owner. And, there was no beauty but cattle, cattle, cattle...
screen shot of A Fistful of Dollars
screen shot of Westworld
At that time, cowboys were a group of disrespected men with low income and social status. And it was illegal for them to carry a gun. Riding on a horse was barely common. Cowboys hardly owned their horses because horses were too expensive back then. So camels were a better choice for them to move around.
The history of cowboy
So in reality their history can be traced back to the earliest European settlers(Spanish) of the Americas. The Spanish were skilled at raising livestock and conducting ranch-related tasks. They also carried these vaquero traditions with them to Mexico during their colonization in the 16th century and later to the West of America, mainly Texas, where later cowboys, horses, longhorns, and ranches became the shaping features of the wild West. It was recorded that the majority of the early Texas cowboys were Black and Latino, who lived at the bottom of society. From the 1830s to 1840s, the primary mission of American cowboys was ranching. Apart from herding and trading cattle, they had to do many painstaking chores from repairing fences to managing ranch equipment.
The strenuous work asked for the accommodation of their costume. A typical cowboy always wears a felt hat and riding boots, armed with daggers and shotguns. His costume is absolutely unique and practical. His high-heeled riding boots were mainly used to prevent his feet from slipping out of the stirrups. Those stiff, hard-wearing jeans were meant to prevent tearing while sustaining him through thorny bushes. The goods he carried were loaded on the back of his horses as he moved around. His carried-on stuff was few in number but of great utility. For example, the handkerchiefs were not only used to wipe sweat, wash face but serve as rags. It is also worth mentioning that the saddle was the most important outfit for a cowboy. It was not uncommon for a $10 horse to be put on with a saddle worth $100.
In the 1870s, with the construction of railways and the acceleration of urban construction, cowboys' lifestyles changed greatly and were constricted to a limited part of America. Their role in American society gradually weakened. In a real sense, the American cowboy era lasted only a few decades in history.
In the 21st century, the original cowboy is almost nowhere to find. Modernization has made cowboys a memory of an era and their equipment exhibits in the museum. But cowboy is still considered a type of work according to a document on the classification of jobs issued by the US Department of Labor in 2003.
Although the cowboy era has passed, its heritage has endured. Cowboys become a spiritual symbol of independence and self-reliance, courage and agility, hard work, and excellence in equestrian. Many western cities still keep the tradition of cowboy culture. Houston is a city characterized by cowboy heritage. Every March, the largest cowboy festival in the United States is held there, including the thrilling rodeo and livestock show. Not far from downtown locates George Ranch Historic Park with a history of 180 years, Houston's best place to experience the cowboy culture. A variety of cowboy performances take place there: such as driving cattle into the fence, roping, trimming cattle horns, and so on. Fort Worth, a city near Dallas, keeps its reputation as “cowtown” with its Livestock Exchange Building(once known as The Wall Street of the West), where major rodeos, parades, and cowboy-style parties are regularly hosted.
The cowboy heritage has also created great economic benefits for Texas. Houston's Taste of Texas steakhouse is a must-stop for anyone who admires cowboy culture. Correspondingly, tourism development boosts the consumption of cultural products. Cowboy hats, riding boots, and other cowboy gear are among Texas tourist attractions. In particular, those cowboy hats of high quality have become a souvenir that tourists even compete to buy. And today cowboy boots even find their way into every fashionista’s wardrobe.
Traditionally, cowboy boots refer to a specific style of riding boots worn by cowboys. They were featured with a rounded to pointed toe (to help the foot get into the stirrup), a high big heel (to ensure a tight hold of the boots in the stirrup), and a high shaft (to protect the legs). The original cowboy boots were mostly made from cowhide leather. There were also some made from skins of alligators, snakes, ostrich, lizards, and so on. V-cut cuffs are also a distinct feature of cowboy boots, which originated from the German Hessian boots that were introduced to the United States in the late 18th century. Early cowboy boots were covered with plain leather appearance without decoration. Later, according to the requirements of the manufacturers, boot makers began to add embroidery sewing with different patterns on the shaft. Now, The design of the pattern has even become an important indicator of the value of a pair of cowboy boots. These characteristics have been developed and innovated. As time passes by, cowboy boots have been diverse in manufacturing materials, design, and color.
Cowboy boots can be divided into two categories: Western boots and Roper boots. The Western style is known for its slanted heel design, which is usually more than 1 inch high. Nowadays, the toe can be accommodated according to the need of customers, with the pointed toe leading the mainstream. The roper style has a lower heel, similar to a regular flat leather shoe, with the heel less than 1 inch. The toe of roper boots may range from round to almond and even to square. As people no longer choose cowboy boots for their traditional utility, their style and pattern keep deforming along with the whims of fashion.
Now being not only a kind of footwear but cowboy boots also share a cultural connotation, carrying a specific historical period of the United States. Several U.S. presidents, for instance, George W. Bush, have worn cowboy boots in public to display their American image. For women, cowboy boots are a fashion staple worn for decades yet stylish enough to make a statement in their closet.