Men’s Boots: Hessians, Wellingtons, Bluchers, and Ankle-Jacks
Men’s boots became popular because they were hard-wearing and long-lasting. During medieval times, riding boots started to be used in heraldry. In the nineteenth century, because boots generally had a bootstrap (a loop at the top on either side), the saying developed “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” meaning a person could succeed because of his or her own efforts or perform a difficult task with outside help or aid. Early in the reign of George III, the close-fitting gentleman’s boot became common. Between the late 1700 and 1800s, popular boots were the Hessian, Wellington, Blucher, and ankle-jack. Most of these men’s boots were created from “grain leather, the flesh side being left brown and the grain blackened … [and] in currying this sort of leather … it went through an ingenious process of contraction, to give it life; so that the heel of the wearer might go into it and come out … easier … [and it caught] snugly round the small of the leg, in a sort of stocking fit.”
Among the men’s boots, the Hessian boot was the boot most popular boot during George III’s time. It was first introduced in about 1789. It began as standard military issue footwear but soon became popular with civilians and was sometimes called an “Austrian” having been first introduced in Germany. When it came into fashion during the Regency some people thought it “odious, as the close boot was then in wear, but like many fashions, at first frightful, it was then pitied, and at last adopted.” Hessians were worn with tight-fitting pantaloons or breeches, with the “up-peaking front bearing a silk tassel.” The Hessians were also low-heeled with semi-pointed toes and hit below the knee. One description of these boots stated:
“[They were] curved at the top — wrinkled at the bottom (showing symptoms of super-annuation even in their infancy), and betasselled [sic] in the front, offering what a Wellington [boot] never did—a weak point for an enemy to seize and shake at his pleasure.”
Wellington boots were a hard-wearing mid-calf boots based upon the Hessian style and modified by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the man who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. The new tasseled men’s boots were created from “the most judicious species of manufactured calf-skin,” cut to fit the leg closely, and sported a low-cut, one-inch stacked heel. They were described in the following fashion:
“They are perfect as a whole; from the binding at the top to the finish at the toe, there is a beautiful unity about their well-conceived proportions: kindly considerate of the calf, amiably inclined to the instep, and devotedly serviceable to the whole foot, they shed their protecting influence over all they encase. They are walked about in not only as protectors of the feet, but of the honour of the wearer.”
The Wellington boot, as it was dubbed, was also comfortable and suitable for hard riding yet smart enough to be worn for informal wear. Men loved them and they were quickly adopted and worn by the British aristocracy. In fact, dandies, such as “Beau” Brummell, worn these foppish boots regularly.
Wellington boots, also sometimes called a gumboot, rubber boot, top boot, willy, or wellie, became popular in the early 1800s and remained so throughout the 1840s. Because servicemen were often wounded in the knee, Wellington eventually modified the boot to cover the knee. But in the 1850s they were more commonly made in the calf-high version, and, in the 1860s, both styles were superseded by the ankle boot, except for riding.
Prussian General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who earned his greatest recognition after leading his army against Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813 and then joined with Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, commissioned a stout men’s boot for his troops. This men’s boot had six lace holes and side pieces that lapped over the front. Although it was adopted by various armies throughout Europe, not everyone liked these boots. One person described them as “churlish,’ loose-fitting, awkward” and others thought them down right “ugly commodities … [and] eight-and-six-pennyworth of discomfort!” Beside being considered loose-fitting, uncomfortable, and ugly, some people were extremely critical, calling them “shocking imposters — walking discomforts!” In fact some people claimed that these men’s boots should be banned:
“They had no right to be made at all; or, if made, t’was a sin for them to be so christened … They are Wellingtons cut down; so, in point of genius, was their baptismal sponsor: but these are vilely tied … they are ambulating humbugs, and the would-be respectables that wear ’em are a huge fraternity of ‘false pretenders.'”
Ankle-jacks may have been less appreciated than the ugly Blucher men’s boots. These were short, sporting boots, that stopped at the ankle and had five lace-up eyelets on either side. They were popular between the 1840s and the 1870s. One person wrote of these lace-up boots
“They thrive chiefly in the neighbourhoods of Houndsditch, Whitechapel, and Billingsgate. They attach[ed] themselves principally to butchers’ boys, Israelitish disposers … itinerant misnomers of ‘live fish.’ … Their term of servitude varies from three to six weeks: during the first they are fastened to the topmost of their ten holes; the next fortnight, owning to the breaking of the lace, and its frequent knotting, they are shorn of half their glories, and upon the total destruction of the thong (a thing never replaced), it appears a matter of courtesy on their parts to remain on at all. On some occasions various … wearers have transferred them as a legacy to very considerable mobs, without particularly stating for which … individual they were intended.”
Although some people thought that any boot or shoe “interfered with the beauty of the human foot,” writer Joseph Sparkes Hall decided that was not the case. He stated:
“The best coverings for the feet are boots, not only do they look neat and tidy, but the general and gradual support they give all over the feet and ankles induces strength, and gives tone to the veins and muscles — shoes on the contrary, and especially long quartered ones, require a great effort from the muscles to be kept on, and this when long applied tires and weakens.”
However, he did not like boots that laced or buttoned because of “the trouble … of lacing and unlacing, … the button breaking, or the shank hurting … and many other little annoyances.”
-  Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 9, 1893, p. 211.
-  Hall, Joseph Sparkes, The Book of the Feet, 1847, p. 58.
-  Godey’s Magazine, Volume 45, 1825, p. 251, p. 251.
-  Ibid.
-  Punch, Vol., 1841, p. 16.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Hall, Joseph Sparkes, p. 124.
-  Ibid. p. 129.
-  Ibid.
Thank you for this article – all the detail I was looking for and explained so informatively. I’m currently reading a Dickens novel, and, as with many such books, it’s helpful to know what these boots refer to.