By James H. Nottage
In this day of mass-produced goods and media manipulated marketing, it is no surprise that there is a clear sameness in the design and appearance of every kind of product from clothes to cars to electronic gadgets. Everything looks alike and when something new does have a distinctive appearance, you can bet that others will soon be copying it.
Photo: Main & Winchester Saddle, Sold 2009 Brian Lebel Old West Auction
For those of us who enjoy the history of Western, and especially cowboy leather goods, there is something about the unique styles of saddles, gun belts, boots, and other gear that is very appealing. You can document particular fashions of shape, function, and design that are characteristic of regions, especially during the last half of the 19th century. As time passed, however, we clearly see how homogenized certain styles became. As an example, the classic cowboy saddle of the 1880s that we think of as the "Cheyenne" saddle, with square skirts, rolled cantle, and other attributes is easily spotted in catalogs, old photographs, and actual specimens. As most collectors know, however, saddles of this exact type can be marked by makers from Montana to California and even beyond. How did designs and forms spread so quickly?
Over the years, I have had many discussions with friends and colleagues about the means by which styles spread and what influences came to bear in this process. Clearly, customers and makers themselves could see saddle catalogs that illustrated styles. Makers copied competitors, customers requested specific features. Working cowboys moving from one range to another with their gear and influenced other cowboys who then might want something just like their friend had.
One factor that has received less notice than it deserves is simply that individual craftsmen themselves were highly mobile and influential. From one shop to another throughout the country, word might spread verbally that an establishment in another town or state was looking for workers. When the economy was poor and labor was being laid off, skilled saddle makers had the advantage of being able to move. They owned their own tools and in the words of the time, could "pack their kit" and take their skills elsewhere. Often this kind of movement is also reflective of frontier conditions as well. At trail towns, in urban centers, and in larger manufacturing districts, workers could move ever westward and transport their skills, finding employment.
Antique tools typical of what a saddle maker might have and pack with him to a new job.
With each move an individual craftsman, or an ambitious person who wanted their own shop, moved more than their tools. They moved their ideas. They took their experience with them. Someone working in Omaha or Dodge City might head for Montana and take design ideas and manufacturing techniques with them and styles spread. In addition, leather workers learned their skills through the generally understood process of apprenticeships. A youngster who apprenticed to a skilled master would spend at least six years gaining necessary skills and even at the end of that period still had much to learn. Schooled in the styles and techniques of a shop in Illinois or elsewhere, a young professional might be fortunate to be taken on as a journeyman in that same shop. Then again, there might not be employment opportunities and he would seek a job elsewhere. Therefore, as he packed his small kit of tools, he also carried with him the influences and "trade secrets" of the shop, all valuable to his future and all contributing to the growth of the trade and the development of its products.
What would the kit he carried consist of? In oil cloth or leather tool rolls, there would be the simplest of standard tools including awls and needles, edgers, round knives, rounders, stitching wheels, and a variety of other knives. He might have small quantities of supplies such as spools of linen thread, specially formulated wax compounds for edge work, rouge for sharpening blades, and dyes. While it would have been considered to be improper behavior, the laborer moving to a new shop might surreptitiously make and carry patterns for saddles and other products. It was also not unknown for someone to take impressions of a master stamper's tools. These could be copied later by filing metal rods or having them made by a tool maker.
Ideas and styles spread at an astonishingly fast rate. This does not mean that there was not something unique in the styles of individual shops. After all, it was the skills and techniques of individuals that made for the distinctive products that were forever identified with a shop or maker and that made others want to copy them. Clearly, demand motivated the borrowing of designs. What remains as most distinctive is the full range of the gear of the American cowboy.
Chief Curatorial Officer, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
Founding Curator, Autry National Center, Los Angeles
Husband of Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage