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There are lots of cowboy movies out there, and especially in the 50s and 60s, they seemed to be the most popular genre. Pretty much any (male) star who was anybody in those decades did a western or twenty. According to Wikipedia, the western was the most popular genre from the dawn of motion pictures until the 60s.

I want to know where the fascination with cowboy culture came from? Were westerns and cowboy culture popular in other media before motion pictures? Or did movies cause the rise in popularity of cowboy culture?

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    I'm sorry... but are you saying that you think movies created cowboys? – Catija Mar 10 '17 at 4:32
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    @Catija No, I think he asks if the Western wave of the 50s created the hype for Westerns or if that interest was already prevalent in (post-cowboy) "modern" culture before those movies. Which is actually not that uninteresting a question, even if it might have been asked a little unluckily. – Napoleon Wilson Mar 10 '17 at 4:56
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    @Catija No. You seem to have read only the title and rushed to comment. I have edited the title to hopefuly discourage the hasty from jumping to conclusions. – kingledion Mar 10 '17 at 5:40
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    No. The content is what was confusing. – Catija Mar 10 '17 at 5:42
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    It was not confusing at all. – cde Mar 10 '17 at 19:54
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I've decided to put my comment as an answer, since it might get more to the point of the original question.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, tales of cowboys both famous and infamous were filtering into the eastern US, and piquing interest. The idea that the west was still wild, as opposed to New York City, for example, was fairly romantic and exciting. At the time, newspapers still told of Indian massacres (both of and by settlers) (example: New York Herald 1873). Publishers decided to take advantage of the interest, and began publishing inexpensive volumes that usually added sensationalism to fact-based accounts of actual events and people (as well as fully-fictional tales).

These became 'hugely successful.'

From Wikipedia:

The Western as a specialized genre got its start in the "penny dreadfuls" and later the "dime novels". Published in June 1860, Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter is considered the first dime novel. These cheaply made books were hugely successful and capitalized on the many stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen who were taming the western frontier. Many of these novels were fictionalized stories based on actual people, such as Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp (who was still alive at the time), Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James.

While other genres of these books were also in demand, particularly the detective story, the Westerns were still one of the most popular, even across the turn of the century. Dime novels gradually evolved into pulp fiction at around the same time as 'literary' western novels began being published.

Then, in 1902, the first Western movie was released (which was, in fact, one of the first narrative movies, period): The Great Train Robbery

So, to sum up, Westerns as a genre were extremely popular from the beginning, even as the events they portrayed were actually still happening. In fact, the very fact such events WERE currently happening in another part of the country was most likely the reason westerns (and cowboy culture) were so popular.

  • I forgot to mention the other cowboy 'genre' of the late 1800s: The traveling 'Wild West Shows,' which gave easterners a taste of the wild west by having living legends like Buffalo Bill give demonstrations, display reenactments, and tell tales in person. These lasted into the 1910s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_West_shows – aryxus Mar 10 '17 at 19:00
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Stories of the Western US have been popular in the past. Like other genres, their popularity seems to wax and wane over the years. The Wikipedia article on Western Fiction has a fairly good timeline pointing out such eras of popularity as (paraphrasing) :

pre-1850's - James Finemore Cooper's stories, including "Last of the Mohicans"

1850-1900 - "Penny Dreadfuls" and "Dime Novels" with Western themes

1900-1930s - Stories like "The Virginian" and "Riders of the Purple Sage" became popular.

1940-1960s - Lots of popular stories, television shows and movies eventually lead to "Western burnout"

Even before the 50s and 60s, there were Western movies. I believe that Rudy Valentino starred in a silent movie version of "The Virginian," for example.

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    Saying that some books were published doesn't make a book popular. Also, hopefully by using the term 'cowboy culture' I made it clear that I am referring to the John Wayne Old West, not the upstate New York Old West. I'm looking for some background information on when and preferably why Westerns became the most popular movies. – kingledion Mar 10 '17 at 5:46
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    "Saying that some books were published doesn't make a book popular." It has been pointed out that "The novel has been one of the most popular English-language novels since its publication." I think that pretty clearly defines it as popular. Stories like those told in John Wayne movies are pretty much the direct descendants of the books mentioned above, regardless of where they are set. But if this answer is insufficient, perhaps you could clarify what you're looking for in the question. – user1118321 Mar 10 '17 at 5:56
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    Last of the Mohicans is pushing it as far as cowboy stories go - it is set in the "frontier" but that frontier is far east of any location we'd consider a true cowboy setting. The cowboy culture popularised by 50s Hollywood really begins in the latter quarter of the 18th century, and was still a thing right up to 1950s – HorusKol Mar 10 '17 at 13:58
  • To further your final point, one of the first narrative films ever was a western: The Great Train Robbery (imdb.com/title/tt0000439) – aryxus Mar 10 '17 at 18:01
  • I'm not really sure why this doesn't satisfy the OP. Maybe this further quote from Wikipedia might help: "The Western as a specialized genre got its start in the penny dreadfuls and later the dime novels ... These cheaply made books were hugely successful and capitalized on the many stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen who were taming the western frontier. Many of these novels were fictionalized stories based on actual people, such as Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp (who was still alive at the time), Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James." – aryxus Mar 10 '17 at 18:08

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