A Brief History of the Rain Boot

four pairs of muddy rain boots are hung upside down outside to dry

Alex Walker / Getty Images

April showers, indeed! Here in southern Florida, rain boots have become standard attire these days and from the looks of my weather app, for many other places too. It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when rain boots didn’t exist, when people walked out in wet, muddy weather in their regular shoes. It wasn’t even that long ago! Herein, a brief history of the practical, yet ever-stylish, rain boot.

Rain boots first made their debut on the feet of Arthur Wellesley in Britain in the early 19th century. Also known as the Duke of Wellington, the military man (like many others of his day) used to wear Hessian boots. Hessian boots, standard issue in the military, were made out of leather, had a semi-pointed toe, reached up to the knee and had a tassel on the top. (Think Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”). Thinking he could improve on them, Wellesley commissioned his personal shoemaker to make a variation just for him. He asked him to do away with the trim around the calf, shorten the heel and cut the boot closer around the leg. The result, known as Wellingtons, quickly took hold among the British aristocracy, and the name wellies endures to this day.

The original Wellington boots were fashioned out of leather, but in the mid-19th century, a man named Hiram Hutchinson bought the patent for vulcanization of natural rubber for footwear from Charles Goodyear (who was using the process to make tires) and began manufacturing rubber Wellingtons. The introduction of the rubber Wellington was met with much approval, especially among farmers, who could now work all day and still have clean, dry feet.

The Wellington became even more popular after World War I and World War II. Soldiers often spent long hours in flooded European trenches, and the rubber boots allowed their feet to stay warm and dry. By the end of World War II, men, women, and children were all wearing the rain boot. Hunter Boot, the company commissioned to make boots for the British Army in both wars, continues to sell their signature boots today.

Rain boots are still called wellies in England, but around the world are referred to as billy boots, gummies, gumboots and, of course, rain boots. In South Africa, where they are called gumboots, miners wore rain boots and used them to help them communicate with each other when talking wasn’t permitted. The miners even created gumboot dances (whose variations have become popular entertainment today) to keep themselves from getting bored.

The lower cost of Wellington’s manufacturing process made it the standard footwear for a variety of professions – often reinforced with a steel toe to prevent injury. Used in factories, meat packing plants, farms, clean rooms for delicate electronics, even fast-food environments, rubber boots are just practical – and stylish.

Whereas most rain boots could only be found in a few colors (olive green, yellow, black) 50 years ago, they are manufactured in all colors (and patterns) of the rainbow today. And even though they’re quite practical for muddy, rainy spring weather, rain boots can also be a colorful fashion statement – the bright side of an otherwise gloomy day.