The original duster coat was a loose-fitting long coat that was worn by cowboys and other horsemen to protect their clothing from the trail dust of cattle drives. These duster coats usually had slits up the back for riding ease but often had the capability to be buttoned closed. Legs straps were included to help keep the flaps in place and later versions included a detachable cape or hood to help fight against the elements. The fabric was usually light colored canvas or linen type cloth. Eventually, the duster needed to be improved as a reliable raincoat, thus the oilskin duster or slicker was born.
The Legend of the Oilskin Duster
The development of the original waterproof slicker is credited to Caden McCoy in 1861. It is said that during the Civil War a tobacco farmer named Thomas McCoy enlisted in the army, leaving his wife and seven children. He entrusted the family farm to his twelve-year old son, Caden. In August of 1861, Thomas was injured at the battle of Bull Run and though he survived the initial wounds, he was left outside wrapped in his blanket and slicker and contracted pneumonia and died. Thomas wife began to sew blankets, clothing including cotton duck slickers, to support the family. One evening, Caden accidently knocked over a candle which spilled wax on the tablecloth. While cleaning up the mess, he noticed the water beaded Credit: Photo courtesy of Mike Crumpston, Source: Wikimedia Commonson the areas where the wax covered the cloth. He rushed to get his dad’s slicker from the barn, dripped some wax on the sleeve and poured water over it.
Caden’s mother decided to help soldiers stay warm by using her son’s experiment. She and her daughters sewed the cotton duck slickers and Caden and his brothers coated the fabric with candle wax. This breathable, long slicker became the staple of the confederate cavalry. The slickers were so valuable, it is said the cavalry stationed troops near the McCoy farm to prevent Union troops from raiding the supplies to make the slickers. When Caden headed to Texas after the Civil War, cattle drovers appreciated the slickers, nicknaming them “fish” because they could live in the rain. At that time, the cowboys noticed that the slickers made excellent covers to keep the trail dust from their clothes, thus the name “duster” coats was born.
The Evolution of Duster Coats
The riding coat or duster coats were the recommended uniform of the Texas Rangers. At the time, the coats were made of leather, hides or fabric. At the turn of the twentieth century when automobiles started to make their way around the country, both men and women wore duster coats to keep the dust from their clothes while riding in the open motorcars. As the design of cars improved, the duster began to find use in different venues.
In particular, around the 1950s women began to wear “housecoats.” Women covered their clothes while cleaning and preparing homes during the day. Housecoats were usually made from light material and were knee length with zippered or buttoned up fronts. They were popular because they covered more than aprons or pinafores and the light fabric still allowed ease of movement. Today, the housecoat often doubles as a robe and is used in preparation for dressing to go out for the evening or to cover night clothes.
The western horsemen’s duster coats regained popularity late in the twentieth century and are currently a staple in western wear. The J. Peterman catalog was instrumental in bringing the duster back to the forefront of western fashion. In today’s market, the duster coat comes in various styles and materials. Denim or twill is popular for the non-rainy cool weather, but oilskin remains the most popular duster for wet weather. They can have collars with corduroy, removable capes and hoods, and different configurations of pockets. They are available with or without leg straps and waist draw cords as well as with or without linings. Regardless of which style a horseman or woman chooses, along with the warmth and comfort, the duster brings a rich history.
The copyright of the article The History of the Cowboy’s Oilskin Duster is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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