January 14, 2009by Harry A. Zuber
Boot jacks shaped as pistols.
The boot jack is a utilitarian device used to remove boots. The many designs patented during the last half of the 19th century show a pride in how items looked as well as how they worked. Thus we have an American art form that has survived to the present day.
There were 239 boot jacks patented in the United States between 1852 and 1995 to inventors in 37 states, the District of Columbia, Austria, Canada, England, Germany, India and Japan. We find wonderful examples of boot jacks made from cast iron, wood and brass. There are many examples of one-of-a-kind boot jacks as well as those produced in mass quantities. They were especially popular advertising and promotional tools. Examples marked “Phelps Dodge & Palmer Chicago,” “Use Musselmans Boot Jack Plug Tobacco,” and “The Glover Boot and Gaiter Jack Paterson NJ” were given away by various companies. Significant information about boot jacks remains scarce.
The maker often did not mark the item with information on the origin, name or date of manufacture, which makes it difficult to determine the date and place of production. The most common boot jack is the “cricket,” with two antennae coming out from the top of the head to form the place for the heel of the boot. At least two foundries were producing these in the 1860s and 1870s. Harbster Bros. & Co., Reading, Pa., was listed in “The Business Director” of 1869-70 as a producer of sad irons and miscellaneous hardware. It produced a cricket with its name on the underside. One of these was found at an antiques cooperative in London, England, where the dealer had marked it as originating in Reading, England. Daniel Kidder of Rumney, N.H., is best known for building the first engine used on the Mount Washington (N.H.) Cog Railway. His foundry (circa 1860) also produced a cricket boot jack bearing his name on the underside.
Another common form of boot jack is the “Naughty Nellie,” a risqué item in the shape of a woman on her back with her legs up to receive the heel of the boot. It has been produced in many sizes and with varying amounts of anatomical detail.The heart is a shape that has been cherished over the generations and is often found in both cast-iron and wooden boot jacks. A wooden heart-shaped boot jack of Pennsylvania origin can also be found hanging in Andrew Wyeth’s former studio, now a museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. There is a beautiful brass boot jack in the collection of the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Del., that was created by the DuPont family. One interesting boot jack producd in the early 20th century is a depiction of “Foxy Grandpa,” a comic strip character created by C.E. Schultze that first appeared on the front page of the New York Herald Sunday comics section on Jan. 7, 1900, and had disappeared by the Depression.
Also at this time, Colonel George W. Miller owned a very large ranch in northeastern Oklahoma which he named the “101 Ranch” for the highway that ran through it. This was a working ranch but became famous for the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which gave non-Westerners a hint of the color and romance of the soon-to-disappear frontier. Souvenirs were good money makers and included a boot jack in the shape of a steer head with “101 Ranch” in raised letters on it. These have been reproduced through the years, but the originals are quite valuable today, as are any original items from the 101 Ranch.
Many of the boot jacks patented in the 19th century were never put into production, and some that were had only limited output and remain very rare today. The U.S. Patent Office decided some years ago to dispose of its patent models in an effort to save space. This is unfortunate for Americans with an interest in the history of inventions in this country, for we lost many fine examples of them. It is, however, good news for collectors, as quite a few of these disposed-of items found their way into private hands. All the boot jack patent models that were disposed of by the Patent Office were bought by enterprising individuals. Sadly, a fire at a warehouse where many were stored destroyed many of these boot jack models.
As with so many collectibles, boot jacks are heavily reproduced. Fine castings and carvings are getting more difficult to find and prices have risen steadily for the best examples. There are many of the more common earlier examples still available at reasonable prices. Collectors can find good examples at antiques shows, live auctions and occasionally at Internet auction sites (on any given day eBay has as many as 50-60 different listings). It is clearly desirable to be able to hold one in your hands to determine the quality of the item, however, before the purchase is made since many that are found are lightweight, low-quality reproductions.Click here to discuss this story and more in the AntiqueTrader.com message boards.