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The Complicated History of Red Wing Boots

Alex’s boot journey began when he inherited a beat up pair of chukkas from his father. Those boots are long gone (he wore them into the ground despite them being a size too big), but his love of hearty footwear still remains. Read full bio.


Last Updated: Mar 15, 2024
9 min read
Key Takeaways

Ask any boot wearer what they think of Red Wing boots. The answers may vary, but they’ll be familiar with the name. Red Wing is one of the most recognizable boot brands in the world. 

You’ll spot them on the feet of all kinds of people, from the construction workers building the new house down the street, to your friendly neighborhood barista, to Ryan Gosling and even the Super Mario Brothers.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Red Wing brand, where it came from, and how it got its name. Prepare yourself for a little history lesson.

The Story of Red Wing Boots: A Timeline

Before Red Wing

The story starts with a German immigrant named Charles Beckman. He arrived in Red Wing, Minnesota, when he was 17 years old and got a job at a leather factory. While he was working there, he became interested in shoemaking, and in 1883, he opened a shoe store to sell only truly good shoes.

1905: Red Wing is Founded

The store was a success, but Charles still believed that well-made shoes were too difficult to find. He saw a need for quality work boots for workers like farmers and miners but recognized that there was no supply.

So, in 1905, he and 14 other business investors created the Red Wing Shoe Company,  named after the Native American leader of the original inhabitants of the upper Mississippi River territory.

Two years later, the iconic 6” moc toe boot was born. Often referred to as Red Wing’s signature model, the first iteration of this boot was water-resistant, durable, and instantly popular.

Red Wing then began manufacturing shoes with a stitched-sole construction (Goodyear welted, to be specific)and also introduced Tredstrate shoes, which were made to resemble the shape of a foot more closely. This, obviously, improved the fit and feel.

Red Wing 1907 Classic Moc

It’s hard to beat American heritage brands---they’ve earned their reputation for a reason. The Red Wing Classic Moc Toe is an excellent, hard working boot that offers all the support, cushion, and balance of a Vibram Christy wedge sole. The handsome 1907 is the most popular leather option for the style. It's an oil-tanned rough and tough copper, which ages beautifully and requires very little care.

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World War I

When the First World War hit, Red Wing stepped up to contribute to the war efforts like many others did, and produced the 1088 trench boot for the U.S. Army. A tough, hard-wearing boot, it offered protection against cold and moisture in the trenches. As with a lot of well-built military gear, it remained popular after the war ended.

The creation of the 1088 is one of the key milestones in Red Wing’s history: but very few things tie a brand to a country like military use. This was one of the biggest steps toward establishing Red Wing Shoes as an American heritage brand.

Early 1920s: Boots for Men and Women

Red Wing Iron Ranger hanging by boot laces on steel work ladder

The 1920s saw the birth of a couple of historic boots. Then, in 1922, Red Wing launches the Iron Ranger. And the crowd goes wild! 

As you might have guessed, this boot was designed for iron miners in Minnesota. 

But its comfort and durability made it a great all-season boot, and it’s still one of their most popular models today. For many people, the Iron Ranger is the first “good” boot they buy. It’s an excellent entry point into the world of boots.

In 1926, Red Wing introduced the Gloria, its first woman’s boot.

Created for ‘active women’ of the 1920s, it was designed with outdoor recreation such as camping, hiking, and hunting in mind. These days, the Gloria is more of a lifestyle boot, but it’s still a durable and eye-catching model.

1920s – 1930s: Demand Grows 

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Red Wing Shoes’ reputation grew with the brand becoming popular among industrial workers for their comfort, durability, and quality. And popularity translates to demand. 

They expanded their product line to include specialized boots for industries like oil field workers and loggers. Occupational safety became a top priority, and Red Wing established itself as one of the largest manufacturers of safety footwear.

They also made some smart marketing moves. During the great depression, they released a rubber-soled boot with a 99-cent price tag to make it affordable. They also released the Billy Boot, a durable boys’ boot featuring a side pocket made to fit a pocket knife, which became one of their best-selling styles.

And all throughout, Red Wing kept on innovating. They developed a sweat-proof insole, which helped moisture to evaporate instead of getting trapped inside the shoe. This prevented insoles from becoming damaged and extended the life of the shoe.

World War II

In 1939, the Second World War began. And again, Red Wing answered the call. Times were changing (along with wartime tactics), and a new era required a new boot. 

And so the famous “Skytrooper” jump boot was born. It was strong enough to help a paratrooper survive a parachute landing but flexible enough for ground combat, and so, as you might imagine, these boots became very popular in the U.S. military.

1950: Introducing The Irish Setter Boot

In 1950 Red Wing released the “Irish Setter” boot. It featured distinctive red russet leather that’s very close in color to that of an Irish Setter hunting dog and quickly became another of the brand’s iconic products. Today, Irish Setter is its own brand, producing boots tough enough to withstand the rigors of work, hunting, or even a zombie apocalypse.

Irish Setter Wingshooter

The Wingshooter boasts all of the necessary features that make a good hunting boot. Once broken in, they’re comfortable enough to stomp around different kinds of terrain for hours at a time.

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1950 – 1960: Work Boot Innovation

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In the 1950s, Red Wing set themselves apart as the boot brand for workers of all kinds. They continued to innovate, introducing new materials and designs for increased comfort and safety.

They introduced the Work Chukka, a lighter-duty model designed for skilled workers like carpenters who do a lot of bending and kneeling.

They also made the Postman Oxford, a durable and comfortable work shoe for mail carriers who spent a lot of time on their feet.

Then they made the 214 Moc Toe, an 8-inch boot with a soft sole and a heel for safety while climbing ladders. Suffice to say, throughout the 1950s, Red Wing stepped up their innovation game to bring new boots to accommodate the evolving labor landscape. 

The Vasque Hiking Boot

Vasque St Elias Hiking Boot front view

In 1964, Red Wing launched an experimental hiking boot sub-brand called Vasque after the company president, J.R. Sweasy, saw a hiking craze gaining momentum in Europe. They make boots for outdoor living: hiking, backpacking, and climbing. 

1970s: Diversification

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In the 1970s, Red Wing continued to diversify their product offerings. They introduced the SuperSole, which utilized a new technology that joined urethane to the shoe without the need for stitching. It offered improved traction and durability as well as being oil- and chemical-resistant.

This new direct-mold process quickly became a new standard for work boots and is still used for many of their work boot models.

1980s: Global Expansion

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By the 1980s, Red Wing was a leading brand in premium work and outdoor footwear. It had become a recognizable name, and not just in America. They could now officially say they were “big in Japan.”

American workwear had grown in popularity there after World War II, but in the 80s, Red Wing officially started selling their products in Japan. And they really took off there as a lifestyle brand, since there was a real thirst for American fashion and durable, heritage-style pieces.

Modernizing Manufacturing Processes

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The 80s were big years for Red Wing. The brand acquired their long-time leather supplier, the award-winning S.B. Foot Tanning Company. This gave Red Wing access to their own exclusive in-house leather.

It was also in the late 1980s that Red Wing, like a lot of other companies, moved most of their production overseas, partly to keep costs down. I know; sad face. But when you make as many boots as a company like Red Wing, it’s hard to do it all in the U.S, and overseas manufacturing can give brands access to the kind of expertise that might not be readily available in the States.

2000s: Introduction of Heritage Line

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In 2008, Red Wing launched their Heritage line, producing iconic models from their rich history. Made in the U.S.A., these boots are made with high-quality materials and the same craftsmanship as the originals.

Since then, there’s been a strong emphasis on those heritage styles and collaborations with designers like Todd Snyder and brands like New Balance and Indian Motorcycles.

Present Day: Red Wing is Still Going Strong

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Today, Red Wing Shoes is still a leader in the industry after more than 100 years in business. They continue to innovate: just a few years ago, they developed a new footbed made from algae. And their commitment to comfort and quality is still unwavering. 

American Boots

That’s a long history. Over a hundred years worth of events, and that’s just the high-level view. So what’s the takeaway? In a nutshell, Red Wing Shoes is one of the most recognizable boot brands in the world. The name is synonymous with hearty American workwear.

How did Red Wing become America’s boot brand? They served their community by making better footwear for those who needed it most: people doing hard labor. They served their country by supplying the armed forces with quality boots in times of war. And they served the average American by making shoes and boots for the great outdoors.

So in the end, Red Wing’s history isn’t actually all that complicated. But it is interesting. And now you know why Red Wing boots are considered an American icon.


FAQs

What’s so special about Red Wing boots?

Red Wing Shoes is one of the most recognizable boot brands in the world,e with a rich heritage going back more than 100 years. Red Wing craft comfortable, protective, and durable boots for people performing honest labor. 

They are also known for providing boots to the military, especially in times of war. As a result, they are considered a uniquely American brand and are sought after worldwide.

Why do Red Wing boots cost so much?

While they might be more expensive than some other brands, Red Wing boots are made with quality materials and expert craftsmanship and generally represent a good value for their price. Many Red Wing models can be recrafted, extending the boot’s life and saving you money in the long run.

Are Red Wings better than Thorogood?

This is somewhat subjective but, in general, Red Wing boots tend to feature higher quality materials and better craftsmanship. Red Wings are usually a bit more refined, whereas Thorogood comparables are a little chunkier and less suitable for casual wear. 

Thorogood boots often require less break-in, but the tradeoff is that they won’t wear in as nicely. Check out this comparison of Red Wing vs. Thorogood moc toe boots.

What is the difference between Irish Setter and Red Wing boots?

Irish Setter is a sub-brand of Red Wing Shoes. The original “Irish Setter” hunting boot (model 877) was released in 1952. In 1997, Irish Setter became its own brand, focused on hunting boots and outdoor sports of all varieties. Since then, the brand has grown and expanded; today, they even produce work boots.

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