One of the most iconic westerns ever made since John Wayne films has to be Lonesome Dove, the classic Larry McMurtry books turned award-winning miniseries from 1985 with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. But you know what you don’t see on Captain Call or Gus McCray? A two-by-six inch, gold and silver inlay cowboy belt buckle. Nope, not one of the Hat Creek crew wears one of the giant rodeo buckles that typify western-wear today. As a matter of fact, through most of the show the cowboys don’t even wear belts at all!
Before 1900, most cowboys wore suspenders or simple friction belts mass produced for the military in the 1860s. The average cowboy made $20-$30 a month and could rarely afford any fancy metalwork on their well-used and often abused equipment. In addition, most cowboys were working in remote areas and would not have had access to decorative accessories.
Inspired by the Spanish trade to their south, Navajo silversmiths started working extensively in decorative western-wear in the 1860s, but were confined to mostly jewelry until the 1880s. As the trade grew, their access to raw turquoise drove the development of a thriving commercial market in the southwest and within 20 years of picking up the craft, their jewelry had grown to include belt buckles, saddle decorations, and detailed silver bridle-work. It crept northward along the great cattle routes and commemorative cowboy belt buckles started cropping up in the early 1900s. These were given as honorary gifts, along with silver and pearl-tooled pistols for soldiers, lawmakers, and local heroes
But the rodeo-buckle we’re familiar with today was originally conceived in Hollywood—and it’s early counterpart, the Wild West Show.
In the 1930s and 40s, as western movies skyrocketed in popularity, the cultural cowboy hero that we know today was born. To add sparkle to their great heroes, Hollywood directors started stacking on the silver trim to all their cowboy accessories. They took the work started by the Navajo and increase the glimmer and glitz. The rise of country music as a national phenomena drove the decorations even farther, with spangles and rhinestones added to everything.
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This was around the same time that rodeos as an organized spectator sport began cropping up out west. The first professional rodeo association (the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) began in 1936 and is still the highest paying rodeo organization in the world. Buckles became prizes, with the event name, date, and location emblazoned on them—similar to the Super Bowl Ring winners sport these days. The early days saw buckles being traded for hard cash, and often melted down and re-tooled into more useful implements after the show.
The success of these awards as free advertising peaked commercial interest and the 50s and 60s found the market flooded with brand recognition efforts by all kinds of western-related products. Farm equipment dealers were early users of this method of merchandising, and vintage John Deere belt buckles are as common as rodeo buckles.
Today, buckles have become a culture commodity, available to represent just about any interest or hobby. They've come a long way from the cast iron d-ring of the Roman Legionnaire!