Collecting cowgirl gear
We've got tips and resources for getting the best memorabilia, for beginners and seasoned collectors alike.
Photos courtesy Mary Schmitt
Photo of a cowgirl wearing studded cuffs and belt that spells "Wyoming," ca. 1900. The photo's owner also possesses the belt and cuffs. This collection was previously documented in a book, enhancing its historic and monetary value. Unusual groupings like this one make interesting and valuable collections.
The earliest cowgirls were simply women who did what had to be done to keep things running — they worked alongside their men, or alone if necessary, helping their family succeed in the rough environment of the West. Later on, some of these fearless women began to push the constraints of tradition, becoming more visible in the process. Women began to carry guns, rope and ride, and even wear pants. Once the image of the defiant and daring cowgirl spread, everyone wanted to go to a rodeo or Wild West show to see one, and cowgirls quickly became a main attraction.
Mary Schmitt built an extensive collection of cowgirl gear with her mother Barbra Schmitt, most of which now resides in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. Schmitt always enjoyed antiques and began her collecting with Native American items and cowboy paraphernalia. In her early years as a collector, she noticed that a number of the collectibles attributed to cowboys were smaller and more decorative than the rest.
While most collectors said these items must have been used by boys, Schmitt had a hunch that they belonged to the women of the West. As a result, she began researching the Western gear of cowgirls. Schmitt studied photographs, paintings, and other imagery of the cowgirl and was able to start matching the small decorative "cowboy" gear to these cowgirl images. In addition, she noticed that many catalogues listed cowboy items as also being available in ladies' sizes. This was the beginning of her extensive cowgirl knowledge and collection.
Cowboys & Indians talked to Schmitt about cowgirls and collecting.
Cowboys & Indians: Can you give us a brief history of the cowgirl?
Mary Schmitt: Once women in the West became visible to the world and started to care less about keeping up an image of the traditional modest woman, the world became fascinated. Cowgirls seemed unworried about what other people thought about them, and this caught people's attention. Cowgirls had a don't-fence-me-in-attitude and probably did more for early women's lib than is often recognized. Cowgirls frequently got divorced and were unafraid to make their own way in the world.
There was a brief period when the West and everything connected with it was fashionable. During that time, cowgirls became the ultimate entertainers. But this phase quickly passed. Even before interest waned, even the most popular cowgirls often went on to live uncelebrated lives as soon as they became too old to rope and ride in Western shows.
C&I: What types of cowgirl items have become collectibles?
Schmitt: Any of the gear or clothing used by cowgirls can be collected, including ropes, saddles, bits, and harnesses. You can also collect cowgirl clothing such as boots, hats, skirts, and spurs. A third category is cowgirl images, either photographs or drawings, many of which were used to advertise Western shows or products for sale.
C&I: What is your favorite piece in your collection?
Schmitt: My favorite things to collect are very early cowgirl items, most of which don't have a known owner. In the West, as the cowgirl began to emerge, each woman made the clothes that she needed to be able to work alongside the men. This resulted in many unique and handmade pieces.
These beaded cowgirl gauntlet gloves, holster, and original gun are from the Wild West Show era, ca. 1880. The gloves show exceptional beading on the upper surface with a complementary beaded design on the inside wrist. These items exemplify the cowgirl's love of flashy adornment and comprise an exceptional collection.
My favorite items are two skirts. The first is a calfskin skirt made in the Victorian style. It has a hem made with five or six layers of stitching which can be bustled in the back. I think this skirt was made to protect a woman's good clothing as she rode to town. The other skirt is made of leather scraps and is crudely put together. It was constructed in such a way that it could be buckled around the legs like a pair of pants but could also be unbuckled and buttoned to form a skirt. I love this piece because it is so clearly a superficial nod to "respectability."
C&I: What affects the value or desirability of a cowgirl collectible?
Schmitt: The main difference between collecting cowboy and cowgirl items is that cowboy collectors place a high premium on knowing the maker of an item. This is not the case for cowgirl items because many of the best ones were made by individuals for themselves. For example, Prairie Rose Henderson — who lived from 1880-1939 and was recently inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame — was a rodeo champion and bronc rider, and she dazzled the crowds not only with her daring feats but also with her flamboyant and personally created outfits. Because style and clothing such as this cannot be tied to a single maker, the maker becomes less important for the value of cowgirl collectibles.
When collecting cowgirl items, aesthetics and uniqueness are the most important aspects of a piece. If you have a choice between two pieces equal in most ways, you should always choose the most aesthetically pleasing piece — the one that is most enjoyable to look at will often have the higher value.
C&I: Where can you look for cowgirl collectibles?
Schmitt: Auctions are the best place to find cowgirl collectibles. But even if an auction says something is a cowgirl collectible, you should find out how they know that the item belonged to a cowgirl. The best thing to find is an item with a photograph of a cowgirl wearing the item. Even if you don't know who the cowgirl is, this is a great find. You can always identify the cowgirl later, and the most important thing is to verify the cowgirl authenticity.
C&I: What advice do you have about preservation?
Schmitt: The tips depend on the item and often on the climate. If you have anything leather, such as saddles or boots, you have to keep them regularly moisturized if you live in a dry climate, and you should dehumidify the storage area in a moist climate so that mold and mildew do not grow.
If you have spurs, the best thing you can do is to lightly spray them with WD-40 a couple times a year, then wipe it off to keep the dust away. However, you should never use silver polish on any metal items because the patina of age should be retained.
Hats should be kept on a hat stand or something head-shaped so that there isn't too much pressure on any one section of the hat. Hats should also be carefully cleaned with hat brushes.
Clothing should be stored and displayed in such a way that the weight is distributed away from the places that usually bear it. For example, don't hang skirts or chaps from the waistband and don't support dresses and shirts by nothing other than the shoulders — otherwise these areas will quickly deteriorate. Metal hangers should also not be used because they contain a high amount of acid. Plastic hangers are best.
TIPS FOR COLLECTING
• Entry level
If you want to start collecting cowgirl items, the first thing you should do is buy as many books featuring cowgirl gear as possible and study the images carefully. You should do as much research as you can before you start buying. Once you have a good idea of what cowgirl items look like and where to find them, you should then decide what parameters you want to use to guide the growth of your collection. You could collect only early cowgirl items, or items from inductees of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, or cowgirl images, or cowgirl boots. There are many options.
The photograph to the right shows a tooled leather belt and purse designed for riding, ca. 1900. This is a great example of a desirable entry-level collectible.
Cowgirls had a unique sense of style. Even though they had rough-and-tumble outfits, each cowgirl made hers feminine in her own way. Cowgirls liked to stand out and be noticed for their personalized attire. As a result, you should buy what you like. Never discount the value of pleasing aesthetics when collecting cowgirl items. The most important thing to remember is that great cowgirl items are hard to find. If you find something you like, you should buy it because it is unlikely that you will find something similar down the road.
The photograph to the left shows a tooled leather and sterling silver flag holder. This would have been used for rodeo grand entries or for parades, ca. 1940. Behind the flag holder is a Nudie wool gabardine split skirt with gold leather and rhinestone detail.
• High end
Cowgirl collectibles tend to be quite a bit more expensive than similar items belonging to cowboys; this is because there are fewer verifiable cowgirl collectibles. For example, a pretty bit and bridle used by a cowgirl will be much more expensive than a bit and bridal used by a cowboy. Most cowgirl hats from the 1920s and earlier are also more valuable than most cowboy hats from the same era. Because cowgirl collectibles are hard to find, and because they are often unique, collectors are willing to pay a high price.
The photograph on the right shows part of an extensive cowgirl collection that includes a beaded vest and hatband, a nutria hat, satin shirt, silver scarf slide, silk scarf, leather skirt, boots, spurs, and a quirt. Finding such a complete outfit is something to aspire to when collecting. This outfit is from a cowgirl in the Pendleton area and was presumably worn at the Pendleton Round-Up, ca. 1920, during the golden age of the rodeo cowgirl.
Cowgirls: Women of the Wild West
by Elizabeth Clair Flood and William Manns
This book has many great pictures of cowgirl collectibles.
Cowgirls: Women of the American West
by Teresa Jordan
This book contains cowgirl biographies. It is a great place to gain helpful background information for collecting.
Cowgirls: Early Images and Collectibles
by Judy Crandall
This book tells the stories of rodeo cowgirls. It portrays the romantic image of the cowgirl and has great reference photographs for use in collecting.
Cowboys & the Trappings of the Old West
by William Manns, Charlotte Berney, and Elizabeth Clair Flood
This book, as well as others on cowboy gear, has a chapter on the cowgirl.
Rio Grande Trading Company, San Antonio, Texas
This is a great place to look for all Western collectibles.