The great American cowboy: his life wasn't as romantic as it sounds

Cowboys always shoot straight. They ride tall, sitting square in the saddle. They have steely eyes and are strong yet sensitive, like John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Most of their time is spent saving ranches of young widows from the Comanches. None of them ever go near a cow.

The image of the cowboy as a rugged individualist who brings order to chaos is one of the most enduring myths of American history. Yet actual cowboys, during their brief heyday, were migrant agricultural workers who were paid little and respected less.

A sweeping exhibit of cowboy memorabilia, just opened in Washington, shows that Americans since the 1880s have il7l,0,13l,4p6projected their own values onto the cowboy, turning him first into a romantic hero, then an entertainer, and finally into today's ideal: a salesman for products from blue jeans to hot tubs.

''Ironically, the cowboy is coming to symbolize a leisurely style of life,'' says Lonn Taylor, curator of the Library of Congress exhibit. He points to the use of Western themes in advertising for designer clothing and recreational vehicles.

During the era of the great cattle drives, from 1865 to '95, a cowboy's life was anything but leisurely. He worked 12- to 14-hour days for $30 a month, leading skittish cattle great distances. He slept tentless in all weather and ate a monochromatic diet of beans (''prairie strawberries'') and bacon.

Almost all cowboys were young men in their 20s. Many were black. A few were reprobate English gentry. They usually worked for cattle-owning Eastern syndicates instead of benign ranch owners, and they had neither the time nor the energy to sack Dodge City on weekends.

''One of the biggest myths was that all cowboys were violent,'' says Mr. Taylor. ''Very few cowboys actually carried a weapon. The second-biggest myth is that all cowboys could sing.''

Taylor, a New Mexico state museum official, and Library of Congress historians have spent three years organizing ''The American Cowboy,'' a huge collection of artifacts tracing the transformation of the cowboy's image.

Exhibit pieces range from an authentic chuck box and rare photos of cowboys on the range to Western film clips, a Roy Rogers Official Flash-Draw Holster, and an ad featuring two cowboys wearing Stetsons and relaxing in a hot tub.

Taylor says the cowboy was first pictured as an unsavory character during the late 19th century, but then Eastern journalists began portraying him as a manly, self-reliant hero, a symbol of agrarian ideals that appealed to many US citizens caught in the rush of the Industrial Revolution.

But it was Frederic Remington, artist of the West; Owen Wister, author of the smash best seller ''The Virginian''; and Theodore Roosevelt, the first political cowboy, who in the early 1900s launched the cowboy myth.

''All three,'' says the exhibit catalog, ''found something symbolically American in the West in general and the cowboy in particular.''

Then Hollywood made the cowboy an entertainer and a permanent part of US culture. Early silent films such as ''Better a Painted Pony Than a Painted Woman'' portrayed him as a standard romantic hero; later, cowboys developed into the macho, silent type of Gary Cooper's ''High Noon,'' or were depicted as genial singers such as Roy Rogers.

And where Hollywood leads, Madison Avenue is sure to follow. ''The American Cowboy'' exhibit shows a startling array of advertisements featuring cowboy-salesmen. There are Hopalong Cassidy Thermoses and Buckaroo-brand apples. Cowboys are used in sales pitches for cigarettes, boots, and beer. And rich-looking, gentleman-rancher cowboys turn up in ads by clothing designers such as Ralph Lauren and Oleg Cassini.

In the end, Taylor says, there's only one thing conspicuously absent from a century's worth of cowboy books, movies, and ads: cows.

''In the myth,'' he sighs, cowboys ''seldom, if ever, work cattle.''

The exhibit will be open in Washington through Oct. 2. Then the show goes on the road, making stops in San Antonio, Texas; Denver; Calgary in Alberta, Canada; and San Jose, Calif.

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