Welcome to Cowboy Tuesday! Each week I will blog about something interesting I encountered in my cowboy research for my book, “Grandpa the Cowboy: A Young Man’s Journey through the American West,” which follows Eugene TenBrink during his time as a farm hand on a bonanza farm in North Dakota, a cowpuncher for a ranch in Montana, and a foreman for a sheep outfit in Wyoming. (Available on Amazon)
This week is all about cowboy clothing. One of the most interesting articles I read was written by Janeen Wilder called “Reins, Riggings, and Reatas: The Outfit of the Great Basin Buckaroo” that appeared in the Fall 2003 edition of the Oregon Historical Quarterly (104:366-393). In the essay, Wilder describes the distinctive clothing of cowboys and buckaroos. Wilder’s research was critically important to understanding the clothing worn by Eugene during his time out West (1904-1910).
Eugene’s cowboy gear is typical for the early 20th century. The felt crown was fashioned into peaks and had a small brim that would not catch the wind and blow off during stormy weather. This “Montana Peak” style was very common east of the Rocky Mountains.
Cowboys wore long sleeves in all kinds of weather as protection from sun or wind burn as well as prickly vegetation. The style of Eugene’s shirt – having only one pocket — was THE style of his day as shirts with two front pockets weren’t produced until World War I. His leather wrist cuffs reduced wear-and-tear on his shirt cuffs (as store-bought shirts were relatively new and quite expensive). They also safeguarded him from kicking calves during branding. The stamped pattern would have been quite a fashion statement! If you look at the inside of Eugene’s right wrist, you can see how the cuffs had buckles to secure them in place. He is not wearing a vest, a cowboy tool that had fallen into disuse by the time he arrived out west.
His bandana or neckerchief was a particularly useful part of Eugene’s ensemble. It would have shielded him from dust and wind, absorbed sweat on a hot day, could have been used as a muffler in winter or even as a tourniquet or bandage. Bandanas were usually made of inexpensive patterned cotton and frequently were the only bright-colored garment worn by a cowboy.
Eugene’s chaps appear to have been of angora wool, which would have protected his legs in ways similar to that of his leather wrist cuffs. Angora wool chaps were very highly prized as they easily shed rain or snow even during torrential downpours and blinding blizzards while keeping a cowboy’s legs dry and warm. Lighter, leather chaps were worn during the summer which repelled rain, but were much cooler in the heat. Although it is difficult to see Eugene’s boots, they appear to be consistent with the thick leather military-style boots that were common at the time. The rounded toe and smooth sole allowed the cowboy to get his boot in the stirrup easily, while the heel kept his foot from sliding all the way through. The tall boot top served as a guard against kicking horses, snake bites, and other dangers of cowboy life. The fancy spurs he wore are visible on the back of his right boot.
Cowboys wore clothing that protected them from on-the job hazards and could be used “tools” of their trade. They also made these young men look quite handsome!