By Phil Spangenberger
It’s surprising just how many of today’s Western enthusiasts, including Cowboy Action Shooters, think the cowpunchers of the 1870s and ’80s rode the range in blue jeans. Actually, this image of a blue-denim-clad frontiersman is largely the product of Hollywood films. No cowboy of that era worth his hide would have ever been caught in a pair of blue denim “miners,” “farmers” or “mechanics” britches—no matter how ruggedly built they may have been. Blue jeans didn’t gain acceptance with drovers until sometime in the 1890s!
The Western immigrants who flocked to the frontier in the mid-19th century were often faced with a shortage of ready-made clothing in the sparsely settled communities. Thus, they could be found wearing a variety of trousers brought from the East—surplus army uniforms, old suit clothes, buckskins and almost anything else that could stand the wear and tear of life in the Far West. However, by the so-called “golden era” of the cowboy, from the 1870s to 1880s, store-bought britches—often advertised as “laborer’s trousers” were in greater supply. These were made mostly of woolen, corduroy, canvas, cotton duck and “jeaning” (now known as denim), but not the type of jeans we think of today. Actually, at this time wool was considered the best for the rigors of cowboying and hard saddle wear, and wool trousers could be had in a vast assortment of colors and patterns, with brown and black being the most sought after. Pinstriped patterns were popular as well. Dressier trousers that featured a dark black and light grey-striped pattern, as found in today’s formal wear, were sometimes called “thunder and lightning” pants.
Fashion for trousers in the 1870s dictated a simple, straight-legged design; however, sometime during the 1870s through much of the ’80s, it was fashionable for trouser legs to flare out at the very bottom. These were called “spring-bottom trousers.” Another practice was to leave the legs without creases, as for many years, creased pants legs were considered a sign of store-bought trousers that had lain in a pile of folded, mass-produced garments, while custom-made clothing was made without pressed creases on the legs. Waistbands were devoid of belt loops. Pants were held up by natural fit or were tightened by a buckled strap at the rear. Buttons were sewn to the waistband for attaching suspenders or “galluses,” as such garments were called, and the trousers opened via a buttoned fly.
Rather than the vertical side-seam pockets, as seen in pants made for street wear, horsemen usually preferred trousers with pockets that opened at the top, as the horizontal openings held pocket contents more securely while in the saddle. As a rule, most cowhands preferred stuffing their trouser legs into their boot tops rather than leaving them outside. This practice remained in vogue until around the close of the 19th century. Stuffing the trouser legs inside high-topped boots was a good way to protect one’s trousers from being torn by scrub brush in open country, and it protected the leg bottoms from getting filthy in the dirt streets found in so many frontier towns.
One style of woolen trousers that saw much use on the frontier, especially with cowboys, were the so-called “California” pants. Produced by the Oregon City Woolen Mills in Oregon City, California, of extremely tightly woven and pre-shrunk virgin wool, these 30-ounce (per yard—a heavy-weight wool) pants were practically waterproof. They were cut with loose-fitting legs and a tight-fitting waist, although the legs became more tailored in the latter years of the 19th century. Offered in several colors, they featured woven plaid patterns, with gray and light tan being among the more favored shades—very likely since those colors hid the dirt better than other hues. Cowman Edward C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott noted wearing “twelve dollar,” light gray California pants in 1885.
Actually, these trousers were so ruggedly constructed that about the only place a cowman could wear them out was in the seat, often necessitating that a canvas or buckskin reinforcement be applied to that area, sometimes extending down the entire length of the inner leg. This gave the rider a virtually indestructible pair of pants with an outdoor flair. Trousers of this type can be seen in a number of Charles M. Russell’s paintings of working cowboys. As a matter of interest, during Russell’s time as a cowboy, he often wore trousers with a buckskin-reinforced seat, and when seen from behind, he reminded his Indian friends of an antelope; Sleeping Thunder, the principle chief of the Blood Tribe, gave him the name “Ah-Wah-Cous,” their name for antelope—a name Russell proudly cherished.
When the cowboys’ trousers finally did wear out, they would sometimes save the remnants of these durable garments so that clothing could be made for the little children on the ranches and farms. Cowhand Floyd Bard noted that, as a child in 1884, his mother would sew clothes for him from worn-out California pants. He wrote, “When these cowboys seen Mother making little suits for Tode and me out of discarded clothing, they started saving up their California pants, which were worn only in the seat.”
Corduroy was another popular fabric with frontiersmen, as evidenced by numerous period images of Westerners wearing this material and the fact that Western clothing catalogs stocked cords well into the 20th century. Sometimes called “sweetor” pants (derived from Sweet Orr corduroy, a medium-wale cotton corduroy fabric popular in the latter portion of the 19th century), they were tailored in the same manner as the woolen trousers. Favored colors were brown or light or dark drab. Interestingly, corduroy comes from the French “corde du roi,” meaning the cord (fabric) of the king, since it was originally a material that was only affordable to royalty.
When it came to canvas, ducking, blue jeans or denims, the knights of the open prairies shunned such fabrics for much of the period of the Old West. Although Levi Strauss went into business in 1850, by 1853 he was offering his brown canvas “overalls” to the intrepid explorers of the California gold rush. When Levi depleted his original supply of canvas, he switched to using a material from Nimes, France, called serge de Nimes, which later became Americanized to the now familiar term “denim.” Although he retained the same design as his brown canvas trousers, he had the new, more comfortable material dyed indigo blue and sewn together with orange thread, giving birth to the legendary Levis—although they were of a pattern unlike those we know today. Levi’s work pants were sewn with a high waistline (called a “high rise” nowadays) with a metal-buttoned fly, and copper rivets were added in 1873. However, the rivets of the rear pockets and the lower end of the fly were finally eliminated in 1937 after the company received too many complaints from outdoorsmen who found it quite painful to squat too close to the campfire—regardless of whether they were facing the fire or had their backsides to the heat. Eventually, the classic-style “501” was adopted in the 1890s, but belt loops did not make their appearance on Levis until 1922.
The popular thinking of the 1870s cowboy was that he was a horseman, and as such, he likened himself to the heroes of the day. Just as today’s much admired adventurers are jet fighter pilots, special forces military like Navy SEALs, and our firefighters, law enforcement officers and others in daring, sometimes dangerous professions, the idols of mid-19th century literature were the mounted cavaliers and the armored knights of olden days. The image of the horseman as the elite of society harkens back to medieval Europe, when only the wealthy could afford to maintain a horse. An equestrian, therefore, was automatically considered a “gentleman” of high standing. For example, the Spanish word for a gentleman is caballero, which also means “horseman,” and the French cavalier is also one who rides horses. As one who virtually lived in the saddle, despite the fact that he was really not much more than a common laborer—although his chores were performed from the back of a horse—the cowboy considered himself a direct descendant of those early horseback adventurers, and they liked to be thought of as “prairie knights,” or some other romantic-sounding title, rather than just a “hand” (although in more modern times the term “hand” is a rather complimentary name in Western circles).
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The typical cowboy of that era’s way of thinking was that such garments like canvas ducking or denims were farmers or miner’s duds, and no man who made his living on a horse would lower himself to wear clothing made for a man who works on or—worse yet—under the ground! As Westerner Philip Rollins said, “Denim overalls were considered beneath the dignity of riders, and were left to wearing by the farmers, townsfolk and the subordinate employees of the ranches.” Another veteran frontiersman, Ed Lemmon, a cowboy from South Dakota and Wyoming, recalled, “The only cowboys I ever saw in overalls were a few who came up the trail from Texas. And they had started the drive wearing six-dollar California trousers, which on account of being made of such firm wool goods, wore out on the wrinkles. By the time they reached the first Kansas cow-town, some of them would have to make a change, and all they could get was overalls.” Although period photos dating from the 1890s do show some usage of Levi’s by cowboys, they certainly weren’t as common as other trouser types.
Other clothes manufacturers faced the same plight. Despite the fact that Montgomery Ward had been producing hard-wearing work trousers of these fabrics since 1874—and Carhart had introduced its now-famous tan canvas work clothing in 1889—it wasn’t until sometime in the 1890s when cowboys accepted trousers made from these hardy goods. With the frontier all but gone, these fabrics were finally seeing more use on the range by the waddies themselves. By the 1920s, Levis were seeing considerable use and had become quite common with cowboys—undoubtedly one of the main reasons Hollywood depicted cowboys in blue jeans for so many years. These are what cowboys wore during the era of the birth of motion pictures, so they were accepted as standard fare by movie costumers.
Although Wrangler, a leading name in blue jeans today, traces its beginnings back to the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries with the Hudson Overall Company, later called the Blue Bell Overall Company, today’s Wranglers, with slight variations, date back to 1947 when the company first introduced blue jeans especially made for cowboys. Having had the official endorsement of the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) since 1974, it’s hard to imagine a cowboy today in anything but a pair of blue jeans. This rugged yet stylishly popular garment has not only become an icon of the working cowboy, but also a modern symbol of America itself. ✪
This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.