I confess, I come from a family of scavengers. Jumble sales, small ads and charity shops all get our blood pumping that little bit harder. My Saturday trip to town always includes a visit to the local Salvation Army charity shop for a quick look through their stock. 999 times out of a 1000 there is nothing worthwhile there, but on a rare occasion I will strike gold, like when I found my lucky brogues a few months back.
Although not quite in the same league, I recently had another lucky find. A pair of big red boots! Seemingly a little uncared for, scuffed and leather a bit stiff, a size smaller than I would have ordered for myself, and an odd label on them “Irish setter”. Though, surely they look just like Red Wings?
And yes, the soles proudly display the Red Wing brand. Strange. Nominal wear on the sole though, and no damage other than scuffs. Laces complete and in order. Though the size has me concerned, so I put them back and continue my day.
Of course, within the hour I’m back. At the price I’d be a fool not to snap them up! The right foot fits ok, the left is a bit tight, but we’ll see what we can make of them. They at least deserve to be taken home and fed properly with some oil and polish, right?
Further research shows that what I have lucked into is a pair of the Red Wing Irish Setters, the iconic 877 work boots, introduced in 1952 and in production ever since. Favourites of farmers, workers and film stars. True icons of footwear, in other words.
And stamped into the leather of these is the date they were made, 05/1994. So a nice round 20 years old next month!
If we are to dwell on the historical aspect for a moment, the “Irish setter” name comes from the distinctive colour of the leather used, a colour obviously reminiscent of the fur of the breed of dog it’s named after. The russet coloured leather was originally the result of the leather being tanned using the sap of sequoia bark.
The actual colour of 877 boots has changed a bit over the years, so the 1994 colour is different to the standard 877 colour today, although you can buy the old colour as , then described as 10877 in Oro-riginal leather. Todays 877 is described as being made using Oro Legacy Leather. Or is it the other way round? Probably best to borrow an Irish Setter and take along when shopping if you are concerned about getting the truly classic style of boots.
The main design characteristics of the 877 are the moc-toe (or really, moccasin toe) and the white crepe sole. Interestingly, Red Wing did this sole 60 years ago, so recent use by certain British gentlemans shoe brands is really a case of remixing past work-boot use with traditional leather shoes. Interesting how history keeps repeating itself, eh?
The crepe sole did have a decent utility value though, as the lack of deep thread underneath meant it was both easy to keep clean and wouldn’t catch on surfaces. The latter means it became popular with construction workers, while the former was appreciated by farmers that could easily rinse off their boot soles.
I find the soles can be quite hazardous on slippy surfaces though, so I’m not entirely buying into the myth that these are totally superior work-boots!
The white crepe soles do tend to lose their crisp white look over time though, going a sort of murky grey. This does the look of the boot no favours at all. Luckily, it can be remedied with a good scrubbing. I used toothpaste and a scouring pad on my boots and found that with a bit of effort and elbow grease the colour was restored quite nicely.
You will also come across these boots described as 8″, this refers to the height of the boot shank. They are also available in a slightly more practical 6″ variant, then referred to as the 875. The reason they are more practical is that the 8″ boot has 10 pairs of holes to lace up and the 6″ has 7 pairs. When putting them on you’ll typically have to re-insert the laces from holes 5 and up, so going withe the lower boots will save you doing up 3 pairs of holes each time. Over a lifetime this will mount up!
The 877 boots are included in Josh Sims book “Icons of Mens Style“, where the author speculates that they were designed to look “just so with jeans”. This would appear to be a valid point, as Red Wings are very commonly used in combination with selvedge denim in what is the essential hipster look these days.
I’m really rather surprised that Minoru Onozato didn’t include the 877 in his book of his “Rugged 211“! Then again, they may be a little too onvious to include.
I mentioned earlier that the 877 also found homes with celebrities and on the big screen. Hollywood bad-boy Steve McQueen could be seen wearing his rugged boots when blasting about his dirt-bike.
Eagle-eyed viewers could also catch Jack Nicholson’s character in “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” wearing a pair.
And where does all this leave me? Well, my pair has been oiled, and oiled, and oiled just a little more. Perhaps a bit much, but leather sorts this out itself given a little time. While it’s easy to destroy leather by drying it out, I don’t believe it can be destroyed by too much oil. It is a case of using decent products though, and years of experience with old leather in vintage cars has taught me that natural products are the only way to go.
I mentioned at the start that the boots were a bit small for my feet, and they still are, but a little less so. I didn’t really have much hope of making them work, until I found this blog-post, where the following lines inspired me to fresh hope and courage:
“I almost had a hernia getting my feet into them and they were bloody uncomfortable… I was also told that the boots would take about a month to break in and that I should wear them everywhere and walk a lot… You can forget the four week break in period; I think that it took two months, maybe a little more before I felt that they were comfortable… I had blisters, the arch of my foot hurt and some other odd pain in the ankle.”
Yet after what must have amounted to a long walk through hell, sun breaks through the clouds and a choir of angels pipes up…
“… after this break in what you get is a pair of boots that fit your feet ergonomically perfectly.”
So hopefully, some way down the road (literally, like), my boots will find the form of my feet and be wonderful. Softening them up with oil is part of my plan on making this arduous task just a little less taxing. One of the great lessons of life is not to make things harder on yourself than they have to be.
And at some point in time, they may even become so well used that I can post them to Instagram as having reached the end of their life…