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Insect-inspired Boot Jacks

July 29, 2015
Boot jacks and boots

Boot jacks are something that all of us who grew up on a farm have probably used at one time or another. They are devices that aid in removal of a person’s boots. The boot jack allows you to take off your boots without touching them with your hands. It could be said that boot jacks are a “hands free” device, just like the cellphones that are designed so that you can use them and still keep your hands on the steering wheel of an automobile.

I don’t think that driving a vehicle while talking on a cellphone is a good idea even if the device is hands-free. However, the idea of removing your boots without touching them is very a good thing indeed. Here’s why: People associated with the livestock industry often wear boots. That means that farm boots are likely to come in contact with all kinds of stuff, including animal manure. Boots adorned with manure can be a sign of a hard-working person, but they are a bit messy to remove. That’s where the no-hands boot jack comes in.

No one is quite sure when the first boot jack came into existence. The term has existed at least from the early 1800s. We don’t even know why it’s called a jack. There have been jackboots worn by the military, and jacks are lifting devices. Perhaps some person named Jack fashioned the first one. Sometimes the device is called a boot pull, and that is more descriptive than “jack.”

These items for removing boots aren’t complicated devices. Some boot jacks consist of a flat piece of wood from 10 to 18 inches in length with a U-shaped opening on one end and a riser about 2 inches thick just behind and on the opposite side of the opening.

If boot jacks came with directions they would probably read something like this: 1., Position boot jack on the floor riser side down. 2., Place one foot on the end nearest the floor. 3., Insert boot heel of opposite foot in U-shaped opening. 4., Pull foot from the boot. 5., Repeat, reversing location of feet.

Of course, human nature being what it is, we had to make the design of a plain old boot jack a bit fancier. There have been over 200 boot jacks patented in the United States since 1852, most based on design. When boot jacks were first cast from metal new designs emerged; for instance, the head of a cow with the horns used as the U-shape to catch the heel of the boot. In like fashion, the antennae of a snail would also work. So do the antennae of insects.

One of the first examples of a cast boot jack is in the shape of an insect. In addition to the antennae, the device included eyes and the appropriate six legs. The legs were used as the risers on the device. The type of insect depicted in antique boot jacks is not clear, at least if descriptions of such devices is any indication. I have seen these insect-style boot jacks described as beetles, cicadas or crickets.

As an entomologist, I must say that most of the cast metal boot jacks I have seen that are purported to be insects look like beetles to me. The reason is that all have a straight line down the back. That line is typical of beetles at rest. Beetles have hardened forewings called elytra that meet in such a line when the wings are closed.

Some boot jacks are even called scarab beetles. This is appropriate because scarab beetles are known for rolling balls of animal manure around. After all, the real reason for a boot jack is to be able to remove boots without having to get your hands dirty from the manure that might be on the boots.

It really doesn’t make sense to fuss over the exact type of insect depicted in a boot jack. Maybe we should consider whether the use of the term “boot” in this device is appropriate. I recently saw an advertisement showing a picture of a boot jack and a human foot with a sneaker. I suppose using a scarab beetle sneaker jack is a sign of the times!

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