The Western genre evolved in the mid-nineteenth century via the emerging penny dreadfuls and later dime novels. Such books were mass produced at a low cost, and drew their inspiration from events that were current on the western frontier of the USA, a wild and romantic contrast to the industrialised noth east where the vast majority of Americans lived.
By 1900, the new medium of pulp magazines also helped to increase the readership.
Popularity grew with the publication of classics such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). When the popularity of pulp magazines exploded in the 1920s, western fiction was a staple.
Contemporary with these developments was the growth of the movie industry and the resultant emergence of global media. Western stories provided popular material for movies from the earliest days of the cinema industry. Indeed 1903’s The Great Train Robbery was the first narrative movie .By the 1950’s 30 percent of all Hollywood films involved a Western scenario , and in the USA Between 1952 and 1970 no less than 11 Western TV series were on the air in any single year.
The cowboy was the ultimate hero-a modern knight errant-the white male hero in arms, he faced adversity alone in a harsh world- the symbols were easy to read and the moral battles that lay at the heart of the stories were clearly laid out- there was seldom any ambiguity.
The figure of the cowboy became stylistically idealised to fit in with contemporary fashions and the rough clothing of a nineteenth century cattle herder gave way to narrow jeans, short jacket, flamboyant neckscarf and neat,rakish stetson above a well tended quiff.
Dealing with the most virile aspects of the masculine image, it was inevitable that the American cowboy should appear as a sex symbol as well as being an idealised and resolute father figure conferring on his followers the approved way to think, work, and fight.
The cowboy remains a potent symobol, artist Richard Prince , for example, identifies the cowboy as being a role model and a sex symbol who embodies adventure, spirit and freedom.
So here begins an occasional series in which we will bring you : Cowboys.