That Really Chaps My Hide!

Besides the trademark hat and boots, the item of clothing that says Cowboy more than any other has to be his chaps. Evolved from the chaparejos of the Mexican vaqueros, chaps were originally designed as part of the saddle. Made of animal hides, these armas, or shields,  attached to the horn of the saddle and wrapped around the rider’s legs as well as the horse’s chest.

Now, if you’re like me and didn’t grow up around authentic cowboy culture, you probably pronounce chaps like I do with a ch sound like in the word cheek. However, it truth, it is pronounced with an sh sound like in the Spanish word chaparral, which interestingly enough is the scrubby vegetation that motivated the vaqueros to create chaps in the first place.

Shotguns

In the 1830s and 40s, the first full-length leather britches were created that completely encircled the legs (although the seat remained uncovered). By the 1870s, these garments came to be known as “shotguns” because they were basically two leather cylinders belted together resembling the double barrels of a shotgun.

The waist belt was square cut and buckled at the back. Many came with pockets that closed with a flap and a cowboy could personalize his set by the way he dressed up the outer seams. Many had fringe or conchas. Although, most working cowhands weren’t too concerned with appearance. All they cared about was the protection the leggings provided against not only vegetation, but weather as well. They kept a man’s trousers dry in rain and afforded an extra layer of warmth in wintry conditions. In hot months, though, a man often removed them and worked without. Some men claimed they gave a firmer seat in the saddle since leather clings to leather and afforded a stronger grip with the knees.

Shotgun chaps were put on like a pair of pants. They flared a bit at the ankle to allow a cowboy to put them on without having to remove his boots or even spurs.

Batwings

In the 1880s, due to the popularity of  Wild West Shows and rodeos, a new style of chaps came into fashion. This variety featured wide leather wings that flapped out to the sides. In the beginning, batwing chaps mimicked the step-in style of the shotguns with buckles running the length of the outside seam. However, by the turn of the century, fewer buckles were used and more leather was added. The open leg style took precedence with the chaps only being fastened to the back of the knee. They also became highly decorated with colored leather designs, silver conchos, fancy stitching, and all kinds of custom leather tooling.

This is the style you continue to see along the rodeo circuit today.

Woolies

Around the same time as the introduction of the batwing, another style emerged on the scene. Woolies became exceedingly popular among cowboys who worked northern ranches, like those in Wyoming or Montana. Most were made from Angora goat skin, but they could also be made from bear, buffalo, or even mountain lion. The wool helped to repel water and added a significant layer of warmth. They were fashioned like the shotguns, as a step-in model, and usually were found in solid colors, white and black being the most common. They had a canvas lining which aided putting them on and taking them off, as the rough leather on the opposite side of the fur would not slide easily over a man’s trousers.

So which style of chaps would you prefer your hero to wear? Have any of you worn them yourself? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

I’ll be in and out today since I’m at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, but I’ll check in as often as possible. Blessings!

(Reference – I See By Your Outfit: Historical Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains by Tom Lindmier & Steve Mount)

Tennis Anyone?

I’m a huge tennis fan, and this weekend the finals of the last Grand Slam tournament of 2011 will be going on in New York at the US Open. I’m always amazed at the athleticism and power of the top contenders, but I wonder how they would fare if someone turned back the clock 120 years and gave them the equipment and clothing of their predecessors.

Like most sports, the game of tennis evolved over several centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first lawn tennis club was established in England. The first tennis championship took place in 1877 at a lovely little place called Wimbledon. Just a few years later in 1881,  the United States National Lawn Tennis Association was formed, and the US National Men’s Singles Championship (later to become the US Open) was held in Newport, Rhode Island. 

The sport became a fashionable rage in the 1880’s and 90’s, especially among the middle classes, and soon men and women both were taking up racquets and installing private lawn tennis courts at their homes. However, women’s clothing of the time made few concessions to the sport. Men were able to play in loose-fitting trousers, shirt sleeves, and a bare head while women were still expected to wear dresses with high-neck bodices, floor-length skirts, layers of petticoats, hats, and yes. . . corsets. The restrictive clothing made it nearly impossible for a woman to bend over and retrieve a ball, so beautifully embroidered tennis aprons with large pockets became the style.

In the beginning, tennis was simply a recreational activity, much like croquet. The fun came in the gathering of friends. Players stood close to the net and simply patted the ball to each other. Yet competitive natures prevailed, and it soon became a sport for athletes. During this time of change, women began making strides in adapting their clothing to better accommodate the physical aspects of the game. Maud Watson became the first female champion at Wimbledon in 1884 and she shocked many with her agressive style of play and *gasp* her short skirts. They barely reached her ankles!

American MaySutton stunned spectators when she rolled up her sleeves during a match and bared her forearms.

However, it was Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen in the 1920’s who took women’s sportwear to a whole new level. Her calf-length cotton dresses were considered indecent since she wore neither corset nor petticoat. And instead of a hat, she wore a silk bandeau around her head to help keep her hair out of her eyes. But it was her grace and skill on the court that made her a sporting heroine and inspired women everywhere to give up the shakles of fashion to embrace functionality when it came to sport apparel.

Can you imagine trying to play tennis or any serious sport while trussed up in a corset? I don’t know how they did it. But if it weren’t for those early competive females like Maude Watson who started taking small revolutionary steps, the women’s movement might not have gained the momentum it did at the turn of the century.

Are any of you tennis fans? Want to strap on a corset and long skirt and join me for a reenactment match?

No?

I’m shocked. Truly shocked.

Say Cheese!

Ever wonder why people never smiled in those 19th century family portraits? Some will tell you that since photography was such a rare occurrence, people wanted to treat the special occasion with appropriate dignity. Others propose that sitting for a photograph took so long back then, no one could manage to hold a decent looking smile without it slipping. But there’s another possibility. What if the serious miens of our ancestors were due to the fact that they wanted to hide their teeth?

Yesterday, my 13 year-old daughter got braces. These days, teens are more likely to wear them than not. It’s almost a rite of passage. After all, no one wants to endure the unsightliness of crooked teeth if there is a way to improve upon what nature wrought. But what of those poor Victorian souls who were stuck with misshapen smiles? Did they have any recourse?

By the mid- 1800s, dentists had begun exploring the realm of orthodontia and developing treatments for their patients. But in these early days, the deformity (or the patient’s vanity) would have to have been of significant proportion to motivate someone to submit to such creative dental inventions.

The instrument on the right was reportedly used to correct a crossbite in a 15-year-old girl in 1859. The telescopic bar across the bottom could be gradually lengthened to widen the palate while adjustable spur screws were used to reposition the incisors. The poor girl had to wear this contraption for several months. Can you imagine? I hope she had gorgeous teeth when she finished the process.

If the dear girl had waited a few years, she might have been able to try out one of the lovely specimens below. The one on the left is a head cap designed in 1866 for extra-oral traction. A gold frame covered the incisors, and elastic straps connected it to the beautiful head cap. Plop a bird and few feathers on that, and she could have started a new millinery fashion. But if she really wanted a cap to stop traffic, she could wait a few years more, and in 1875 become the proud owner of the tooth regulating machine on the right. Just think of the five wagon pile-up that would ensue on main street when she stepped out in such a gripping piece. The steel rod was attached to the crooked tooth by an elastic ring. Then they would tighten the elastic strap between the head cap and the steel rod in order to produce the necessary traction.

           

By the turn of the century, braces had become more humane. Dentists figured out how to wrap bands and wires around teeth. In order to do this, though, they needed malleable metal. So what did they choose? Gold, of course. Fourteen- to 18-karat gold was commonly used for wires, bands, clasps, etc. And you thought braces were expensive now! Just think what it would be like if your teenager had a mouth full of gold. Thank heaven for stainless steel and modern advancements!

All in all, I must say I’m thankful to be a 21st century parent. And my daughter is much happier with the results this way, too.

Cowboy Crushes

Why do I write western romances? Even more telling—why do I read western romances? There are many reasons, but the most compelling one is simple. I do it for the cowboys.

Those rugged, hard-working men, so capable, so honorable, so devoted to the women who capture their hearts. I can see the silhouette of a man on horseback, sitting straight in the saddle, and my heart starts fluttering before I even see his face. Crazy, huh? But the image stirs the romantic in me like nothing else. After all, if you’re going to ride off into the sunset with a hunky hero, he needs to have a horse.

It probably started back in my early teen years. I’d outgrown Saturday morning cartoons, so I turned instead to the Saturday westerns. It was the 80’s, the decade that introduced MTV and video games. Westerns were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Well, except for me. I found channels that aired re-runs of wonderful shows like Bonanza, Wagon Train, and The Big Valley. I couldn’t get enough. I started daydreaming my own episodes, writing myself into the script so that I could win the heart of the cowboys I fancied. I had desperate crushes on Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts, at left) from Bonanza and Cooper Smith (Robert Fuller, at right) from Wagon Train. I guess I have a thing for dark-haired men in black hats.

That theme continued into the 90’s when the western made a slight comeback in the television world with shows like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, The Young Riders, and The Magnificent Seven. I’ve been re-watching The Young Riders on Netflix with my 13 year-old daughter. We both agree that Josh Brolin makes a very dreamy Jimmy Hickok. Although I think the beautiful Palomino he rode played a role in the attraction, too. I haven’t introduced her to Eric Close in The Magnificent Seven yet, but he was another cowboy who made my heart pitter-patter.

                          

Then we could talk about those cowboys from down under. Tom Selleck is now a western icon, but I first discovered him in chaps and hat in Quigley Down Under. I had never been that impressed with him when he was driving around Hawaii in a red sports car, but give him a western makeover and stick him atop a horse, and I couldn’t resist. A man that impresses me in any setting is Hugh Jackman. And he made me sigh mightily when he donned western garb for the movie Australia. Hugh proved to me that you’re never too old for a new cowboy crush.                  

                        

And of course, with the release of Cowboys and Aliens, I would be remiss if I failed to mention my latest crush. Daniel Craig makes a fabulous James Bond, but there’s no comparing 007 to Jake Lonergan to my way of thinking. The cowboy’s gonna win every time.

So what about you?

Who are some of your cowboy crushes?

The Fire That Inspired a Plot

As a writer, nothing excites me more during the research phase of plotting a book than discovering actual history that allows my entire plot to fit together in a way more perfect than anything my imagination could have conjured. This is exactly what happened during the writing of my latest novel, To Win Her Heart.

My hero, Levi Grant, enters the story after spending two years in Huntsville State Prison for an unintentional crime. Being a large, muscled man, he was put to work in the labor camps during his incarceration, breaking rock at a granite quarry. The abusive camp sergeants he faced there left him with scars inside and out, but the compassion of a prison chaplain helped him rebuild his faith and his dream of starting a new life. Upon his release, he takes up his father’s blacksmithing trade and plans to keep his past a secret. However, as the author, I couldn’t allow this secret to stay hidden. So I began looking for ways to expose my hero’s past. And I stumbled upon the perfect solution in my time period research.

[Top – Texas Capitol as it appeared in 1875. Bottom – Texas Capitol after the fire of 1881.]

In 1881, the Texas Capitol building was destroyed by fire. The Texas Legislature decided that when they rebuilt, they would use only materials native to the state. They initially chose limestone, as there was a quarry near Austin, but when iron particles in the rock led to discoloration, they elected red granite instead. This granite was obtained from Granite Mountain near Marble Falls, Texas in 1885. To cut costs, the state contracted convict labor for breaking the stone. The use of free—or almost free—convict labor in the quarries, however, was seen as an attempt by the state to undermine unionized labor and was opposed by virtually every organized labor group in Austin. Hence, word spread throughout the region about the controversial labor force.

This historical event allowed me to supply Levi with quarry experience during his incarceration (breaking rock at Granite Mountain), but with a project that was so well known for using convict labor, it could easily expose his past should anyone learn of his involvement. And, of course, someone does. History provided the perfect scenario.

[Convicts working at Granite Mountain]    

Not only did this fabulous research gem supply the plot point I needed, but it also helped determine my setting. The story opens in 1887, in keeping with the time frame of Levi working at the labor camp in 1885 at the beginning of his incarceration, leaving time on the back end of his two-year sentence for his spiritual rehabilitation with the prison chaplain. It also played a role in the location of Spencer, Texas. Knowing how pivotal a role having a quarry nearby would be to my story, I chose to set my fictional town near Limestone County where the natural resource from which the county derived its name was abundant enough to allow me to install a quarry a few miles from town.

Fun how things work out, isn’t it?

Are there interesting historical tidbits in your back yard that would make a great plot point in a novel? Any colorful characters in your family history who would spice things up? I’d love to hear about them. Who know’s? Maybe your idea will be the spark that ignites the fire for my next book.

To read the first chapter of To Win Her Heart, click the link below.

http://www.karenwitemeyer.com/excerpt_heart.html

Life at the Livery

Before I get started with my post, I just wanted to share how excited I am to be the newest filly in the corral here at the Junction! I’ve been an active follower for several years, and I know how talented and fun this group of ladies is. I couldn’t be more pleased to find myself in their company on a regular basis.

Now, back to the livery . . . take a close look at the picture below. Can you guess what’s missing?

Women. You’ll find nary a one. That’s because the livery stable was a man’s domain. Females flocked to dry good stores, dress shops, milliners, and drug emporiums but avoided the masculine hub known as the livery. Why? Mostly because of the smell. And the likelihood of stepping in something no lady would want clinging to the sole of her shoe or staining the hem of her skirt.

For a man, however, this was the western version of an English gentleman’s club. A masculine sanctuary, a place to pass the time discussing crops or swapping stories by the potbellied stove. So what if the air was a bit gamey? A little manure never hurt anyone. The only nags were out back in the corral, and they didn’t seem to mind if a fella was of a mind to spit his tobacco juice on the floor or wipe his nose on his sleeve.

But the livery was more than a gathering place for men who wanted to escape their womenfolk for a time. It was a place of business. The liveryman kept prime horseflesh on hand for harness or riding, maintained a respectable selection of carriages and wagons for rent, pitched hay, tallied accounts, and even dealt with colicky critters when the need arose. Travelers stopped by to board their mounts or rent a saddle horse for the day. Young swains coughed up hard-earned coin to impress their gals with romantic country drives in a rented rig. The livery supplied an essential service to the townsfolk.

As I researched livery stables for my debut novel, I came across a fabulous find in one of our local library’s genealogical collections—a transcribed log book from a livery in Bonham, Texas dating back to 1885. Not only did I learn what prices were charged, I also gained insight into the types of services offered. Here is a sampling:

  • Horse rental per day – $0.50
  • Horse and buggy rental – $1.00
  • Carriage and team – $2.00
  • Carriage and driver – $4.00
  • Buggy to depot – $1.00
  • Horse to pasture – $0.50
  • Feed – $0.25
  • Bucket of oats – $0.50
  • Stall rental – $1.50
  • Stall plus hay – $2.50
  • One month board on horse – $10.00
  • Currying horse – $0.10
  • Saddling horse – $0.25
  • Repairs on carriage – $0.50 to $1.50 or higher depending on extent of repair needed
  • Fee for lost horse blanket – $0.75 for regular blanket, $2.00 for double blanket

In addition to accepting cash for payment, this log book also chronicled a variety of barter offerings. Customers were known to pay in corn or cords of wood. One fellow who had accrued a rather large debt paid with a big black sow.

If a man had no goods to offer, he might pay in services like hauling hay in from area farms, working the nightshift at the stable, working as a carriage driver, or painting the livery.

Yet as the 19th century faded into the 20th, and the horse no longer held sway as the primary mode of transportation, what happened to all these livery stables? Did they simply fade away into the yore of yesteryear? Some may have. But many enterprising livery owners adapted successfully to the times and converted their stables and wagon yards into garages for the newfangled horseless carriages that dominated the streets.

So the next time you take you car to the shop, try to picture the mechanic with a handlebar mustache, hat, and boots. Who knows, maybe one of his great-great-grandfathers owned your town livery.