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Katiuskas
Katiuskas / Reuters

Spanish 'Katiuskas' turn 90

  • Why the English invention has a Russian name in Spain

February and March are usually quite wet months on the Costa del Sol. The best way to survive the rainfall and flooding is by wearing rubber boots.

Every British person upon seeing rubber boots exclaims 'Wellingtons,' or rather 'wellies.' Meanwhile for Spanish they are just... 'Katiuskas.' While rubber boots are known in England under the name of one of the leading military and political figures of the 19th century, in Spain they were named after a Russian female character of an operetta, exactly 90 years ago.

It is believed that rubber boots made their debut in Britain in 1852, on the feet of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington. However, the invention of rubber boots by the British can be contested by both the Germans and the French.

In the 18th century, the light leather boots known as 'Hessians' were used by German soldiers and also those fighting for the British in the American War of Independence. Later, at the beginning of the 19th century, most of the English nobles wore the same military style riding boots but with polished leather and ornamental tassels. One of them, the Duke of Wellington, asked his shoemaker in London to modify the Hessian boots by fabricating them in soft calfskin leather, removing the trim, and reducing the height to fit more closely around the leg. Eventually, the boot was dubbed the 'Wellington' and the name has stuck in the English language ever since.

In the middle of the 19th century, Wellington boots started being made of elastic rubber. In 1850, Hiram Hutchinson, an American industrialist of British origin, obtained a license from fellow American Charles Goodyear to use his patented vulcanization process. When Hutchinson emigrated to France, he applied the new process to the production of boots, which became an instant success. The boots became very popular especially with farmers. This resulted in France also being considered a pioneer in the production of rubber boots.

During the same period, Scotland started its own production. This was possible because Henry Lee Norris also managed to secure a contract with Goodyear to manufacture rubber and eventually rubber boots. In 1856, he established the North British Rubber Company in Scotland, later to become Hunter Boot Ltd. In contrast to Hutchinson, Norris' clientele were not workmen nor farmers; his target group were aristocratic gentlemen and officers. However, his focus changed during World War I when the North British Rubber Company was asked by the War Office to construct a combat boot suitable for muddy trenches. By the end of the World War II, the public at large i.e. civilians, women, and children, were all wearing them as well. Later, the 'green welly' became the symbol of country life across Great Britain and around the world, especially in English-speaking countries. Nowadays we can see rubber boots on the catwalks - from knee-high chunky Wellington boots by Versace to rubber ankle boots by Christian Dior or Prada's chunky tread soles in playful pink hues. Knee-high wellies are, by contrast, even combined with a silky slip dress for the freshest date-night look.

Since, Lady Diana Spencer was photographed wearing a pair of rubber boots on the Balmoral estate during her courtship with Prince Charles, boot sales for women skyrocketed and have stayed trendy ever since. The Windsors still continue to wear the 'wellies' during inclement weather, including the princesses by marriage - Meghan and Catherine. Actually, 'Kathy' has been synonymous with rubber boots in Spain for the last 90 years.

The name Kathy/Katiuska originally comes from a famous Pablo Sorozábal's zarzuela-operetta about a young lady, a survivor of the Russian imperial family. The premier of "Katiuska, la mujer rusa" ('Katiuska, the Russian woman') took place at the Victoria Theatre in Barcelona on 28 January, 1931. The pretty Katiuska wore short boots and danced a lot on the stage. The audience were impressed by those red boots, and after the performance, many women headed to the shoe shops and asked for boots like Katiuska's. From that point forward, shoe shops began to recognize rubber boots as 'Katiuskas.' Rubber boots for women have since been readily available in many shops but men can only find them for sale in sport shops such as Decathlon.

A Russian resident living in Mijas Costa, Katerina Abramova, is surprised with such a Russian-Spanish name for rubber boots.

"In Russia we just call them 'rubber boots.' Rubber overshoes named 'kalosha, or galosha' that Russians have been using for ages are more popular in my country. Before production of kaloshes became industrial, they were handmade from leather, sometimes even with fur inside. Kaloshes protect you not only from mud, but also from the cold. Here I cannot find them in shops though, I found something similar - foam clogs, known in Spanish as 'zuecos' which in the north of the country are also called 'galochas.'