What does the expression “to lift or pull up oneself by the bootstraps” mean and Where does it originate?

You may travel all over the United States, North, South, East, or West, or in any part of Canada or England, and find almost no one who isn’t familiar with one form or another of the expression “to lift or pull up oneself by the bootstraps”.

It is hardly necessary to say that by its use we mean to raise oneself through one’s unaided efforts above one’s former cultural, social, or economic level.

And yet, beyond being able to state positively that the expression cannot be more than three hundred and fifty years old, I cannot say in what English-speaking country it originated, or even whether it dates back to the time of George Washington and George the Third of England, though I am almost certain that it is considerably older.

That is, I myself have not been able to turn up any printed use or record of this common expression at any date earlier than about ten years ago. It occurs on page 456 of The Beards’ Basic History of the United States (1944) by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. Undoubtedly it has appeared earlier, but no dictionary nor other reference work has made note of it. Yet I have seen it in print several times since that date.

In fact, I cannot even tell you nor hazard a guess as to how old the compound word bootstrap may be. The earliest printed record, so far as I have been able to discover, is in the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, 1894 edition; and there it appears only in the definitions of two related words, boot-hook and strap.

The first definition of bootstrap to appear in any dictionary is in the 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, covering the familiar loop at the top of a boot.

But this strap was known to Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, (1601), Act I, scene 3, Sir Toby Belch makes the comment: “These cloathes are good enough to drink in: and so bee these boots too; and they be not, let them hang themselues in their owne straps.”

In an attempt to learn when such straps appeared on boots, I was referred eventually to Mr. John H. Thornton, M.A., F.B.S.I., Head of the Department of Boot and Shoe Manufacture, Northampton College of Technology, Northampton, England, a town where footwear has been made continuously since the thirteenth century and now the center of such manufacture in England.

In the course of our correspondence Mr. Thornton wrote: “In my collection of boots and shoes I have a pair of Cromwellian riding boots c. 1653 and these have the loops (or the remnants of them) inside, so it is quite evident that boot-straps are as old as heavy riding boots themselves, which, as far as I can judge, came into use towards the end of the 16th century.”

Mr. Thornton also sent me photographs of one of those boots, side view and top view, from which the accompanying drawing was made.

Although, as another English correspondent seemed certain, this exploit of lifting oneself by one’s own bootstraps is in line with other extravagant achievements of the eighteenth-century hero, Baron Munchausen, this feat is not to be found among the list.

Did the expression not exist in 1785 when the book was written? or, as I think more likely, did the author, Rudolph Erich Raspe, not happen to think of it?

If an explanation is warranted, the expression alludes to the struggle from early date to late date in inserting one’s foot into a well-fitting boot. The space at the right-angle turn from shank to sole is just not quite large enough for one’s heel and ankle to slide through. The bootstrap was devised to give the would-be wearer a better purchase.

Then came the boot-hook as illustrated, another early invention.

But even with those aids he striving to wear the boot is sometimes uncertain whether he is trying to shove his foot downward or lift himself upward.