Shoes and boots are often worn to make a big fashion statement, as the chunky platforms and stiletto pumps of Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, and Jimmy Choo so amply show. But shoes have another purpose—to help their wearer get a job done, comfortably and safely.
In particular, boots have long been put to work. Some of the first work boots were 19th-century cowboy boots, which were modeled after boots worn by the Hessian soldiers who fought with the British during the Revolutionary War. These boots were distinctive for their V cut in the front and pull-straps on the side.
By the 1880s, more than 100 companies in Kansas were making boots for Texas cowboys. In Texas, Justin Boots was probably the best-known name. Long before it gobbled up Nocona Boot Company, Chippewa, and Tony Lama, Justin was making boots for ranchers, as well as six- to eight-inch lace ups for workers in other fields.
Wolverine got started around the same time. Established in Rockford, Michigan in 1883, Wolverine made a name for itself in 1914 with its six-inch lace-up 1000 Mile boot. During World War I, Wolverine made boots based on this model for the military—they're now sold in the company’s Garrison line. But Wolverine boots are not all work and no play—at the 2010 Winter Olympics, U.S. snowboarder Shaun White was seen stomping around in a pair of 1000 Mile boots following his gold-medal halfpipe win.
Red Wing came next in 1905, when Charles Beckman sold his first pair of boots for $1.75. Based in Red Wing, Minnesota, also home to Red Wing Stoneware Co., by 1907 the company was producing 100 pairs of shoes per day, and by World War I it was making countless No. 16 boots for U.S. soldiers. In fact, Red Wing has a long history of supplying work boots and shoes to the military—in World War II, it produced boots in 239 sizes and widths just for the U.S. Army.
Wesco came next in 1918. Based in Scappoose, Oregon, the West Coast Shoe Company was founded by John Henry Shoemaker (yes, that’s his real last name), and is still run by members of the Shoemaker family. Naturally, logging boots with spiked soles were the company’s first focus. In the 1930s, shipworkers favored Wesco’s boots, and by the end of that decade, Wesco favorites such as the Highliner, Jobmaster, and Boss had been introduced. More recently, Wesco has concentrated on non-conductive safety boots, including the Voltfoe.
One other bookmaker of note is Danner, which appeared on the scene in 1932, moving from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to Portland, Oregon. Its Shipyard Boot was a mainstay for blue-collar workers in the 1950s and ’60s, when Danner began making boots for policemen and military personnel, as well as hunters and hikers.