Southern Arizona Folk Arts
Home / An Occupation and a Region: Cowboy and Western Folk Art / Brands

El Arte Folklórico del Sur de Arizona en espagñol

Brands

Brands have been called "the heraldry of the range." Burned into a cow's hide, a brand identifies the animal's owner - a necessary task in open range where several different "outfits" may run their cattle together. But the brand does more - it has come to stand for the outfit itself - the ranch, its owners, its workers, and its traditions. Brands are used in many places - on cars and pickups, on table china, pressed into the damp cement of the ranch house porch, and as sculptural embellishments to gates, mailbox stands, and the like.

In Mexico, brands appear to have no special names. American cowboys, on the other hand, have made of brands a kind of Victorian parlor game, in which the brand is "read" as though it were some sort of rebus figure. Thus - a bar, and J- is the "J Bar" brand. -BQ becomes the "barbecue" sign, and so forth. A favorite sport of many older cowboys is to argue over the correct reading of a particular brand.

A branding at Everett Brisendine's daughter's ranch, Chino, Arizona
A branding at Everett Brisendine's daughter's ranch, Chino, Arizona
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Brand at the La Osa Ranch, Arizona, August, 1978
Brand at the La Osa Ranch, Arizona, August, 1978
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Brands in the American West are more than means of identifying cattle. They also stand for the "outfit" - the ranch, its owners, employees, and traditions. Brands also provide mental exercise for ranch people, for the have been turned into a kind of rebus game, and can be "read" by the adept. This "triangle anchor" brand was worked into the gate of the late John Kinney, owner of the northern La Osa ranch near Sasco, Arizona.

Brands in the Gadsden Hotel Bar, Douglas, July 1986
Brands in the Gadsden Hotel Bar, Douglas, July 1986
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Considering the importance of brands in ranching society, it is not surprising to find them used as decorations where ranch folk gather. This is one of the walls of the cattlemen's bar in the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona. Douglas, which sits on the U.S./Mexico border was for many years an important shipping spot for Mexican cattle, and the hotel was traditionally a cowboys' and ranchers' gathering place. Both Mexican and U.S. brands are represented in the bar.

Three books about cattle brands that you might request through your local library are: Manfred R. Wolfenstine's, The Manual of Brands and Marks, published in 1970 and Oren Arnold's Hot Irons: Heraldry of the Range, published in 1940. Arnold also wrote Irons in the Fire: Cattle Brand Lore.

Quilts | Easter Eggs, Paper Cuttings, and Woodworking from Europe | An Occupation and a Region: Cowboy and Western Folk Art | Chicano Murals in Tucson| Low Riders -- A Contemporary Folk Art Form | Mexican American Paperwork | Mexican Food in Tucson | Rights & Permissions | Home