I learned a lot at my first-ever custom boot fitting: Your feet change roughly every decade or so; there’s usually about a quarter of an inch difference between your right and left foot; and, for 32 years, I’d somehow been missing out on a marvelous invention called the boot jack.
It all started when I wandered into Lucchese’s custom collection store in Fort Worth. They offer free, no-strings-attached fittings to any adult who wants one. Ronnie Dunlap, a sales associate with a gray handlebar mustache and tortoise shell glasses, beckoned me to a leather chair reminiscent of an old-timey shoe shiner’s setup and began to carefully trace around my cheetah-print socks, taking measurements of my instep and heel. As he did, we chatted about some of the customization options and I flipped through material swatches grouped by type: goat, caiman, snake, ostrich. The last step involved donning a “fitter boot.”
Since I was, sadly, in no position to fork over thousands for custom kicks, I prepared to take off the fitter and leave empty-handed. Then, Dunlap motioned for me to remove the boot with the help of a boot jack. And that’s when my life as a boot-lover changed.
At first, I stared at the tool, bewildered. A boot jack, he explained, is a relatively simple contraption. This one was a short, rectangular piece of wood, elevated slightly, with a U-shape cut out of the top half. He put his left heel into the U, stepped onto the bottom half with his right foot, leaned backward, and pulled. Like a warm knife slicing through butter, the boot slid off in one seamless motion.
I seriously doubted I’d look as graceful, but, to my surprise, when I gave it a try, the boot came off without a hitch. This was not the experience I was accustomed to: normally, it’s a struggle that involves odd angles, hopping around and—during the summer—an unintentional game of tug-of-war as my boyfriend tries to pry the boots off my swollen heels. I felt like I’d just been shown a party trick and I simultaneously wanted to share it with the world and tell no one lest I be taken for a fool. Was I the only one who didn’t know what a boot jack was?
Soon, I was seeing boot jacks everywhere—in the shoe section at Junk Gypsy in Round Top, at the Barfield hotel in Amarillo. I took comfort in the fact that when I showed some of the native Texans I knew, they were equally amazed and enamored. So, I did some digging to find out how long boot jacks had actually been around. Turns out, it’s a long time.
The oldest patent I uncovered dates to 1887. Several museums, including one in Colonial Williamsburg and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library in Chicago, have boot jacks in their collection. According to the latter, the hands-free device “limited the struggle of removing tall riding boots and limited the wearer’s exposure to any mud or manure on the boots.” The boot jack even had a hand in shaping our nation’s politics. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History possesses a cast iron boot jack in the shape of a cricket that William McKinley used to woo voters in his 1896 presidential campaign (talk about a step up from a button).
The cricket was one of the most popular designs of the nineteenth century, but I also came across vintage metal boot jacks in the form of a mermaid, a fox, and a fish. Some motifs—like a longhorn and a double-barreled pistol—felt particularly Texan. Today, most modern boot jacks are made of wood. Ralph Lauren sells one, covered in hand-tooled leather, for just under $400. Tecovas, another Texas boot brand, offers a $95 beechwood variety with a ruched suede padding aimed at protecting boots from any scratches. With more than 1,500 reviews and nearly a 4.9-star rating, it was almost enough to make me hit “add to cart.”
Ultimately, though, I opted for the charm of a $35 vintage brass beetle that fits perfectly with our mid-century modern decor. Is it absolutely necessary? No, but it sure is satisfying and it makes an otherwise mundane moment feel a bit more luxurious. If I had it my way, there’d be one at every door and every home I visit. Spoiler for family and friends: You may just find a boot jack under your Christmas tree this year.