Vintage Frye boots are highly valued by collectors, and many pairs of these boots appear on eBay and Craigslist with claims of being “vintage.” True “vintage” Frye boots were made in the USA and the claim “vintage” is for a pair of boots made before 1981, featuring boot designs, heel height, and black label described below (or no label before 1970). Vintage Fryes were made of entirely US-obtained materials, including the leather. They were mostly machine-produced, but the process at their facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts, required a lot of hand-labor throughout the bootmaking process where skilled workers demonstrated pride in their craft.
The John A. Frye Company continued to make quality handcrafted boots in its facility in Massachusetts until the company was bought out in 1987 by Reebok which drastically changed the quality of the boots being made under the Frye name. The company was sold to a series of holding companies through the late 1980s to 2010. The plant in Massachusetts was closed in 2003.
Today, Frye boots are made under license by its holding company. When you buy boots with the Frye label on them, you are buying a license but not a quality product. The boots are all machine-made and assembled with little hand-labor involved. The quality of the materials from which the boots are made are of lesser standard. And the company even states on a stamp on the inside of the campus boot style shaft, “made in USA of U.S. and imported parts.” That's a crafty way of saying that it is likely that the leather is from a country such as Pakistan which has a reputation for selling inferior leather. Frye boots available today in styles other than the campus boot are likely made in China.
If you come upon a sale or auction of “Vintage Frye Boots,” how do you determine if the claim of the boots being “vintage” is valid? There are three major things to look for:
1) The height of the heel. Pictured here is a heel from a Frye boot made in the early 1970s. The actual heel height is 2-3/8” including the rubber sole plate. True “vintage” Frye boots have this higher, stacked heel.
Frye boots made since the 1980s have a 2” heel, including the sole plate. The difference is noticeable in pictures on eBay listings, for example, but if the listing doesn't say the actual heel height, you should send the seller a question to ask.
2) Look for the Frye label on the inside of the boot shaft – or look for pictures or statements about the label. However, the Frye label was not sewn into the boot shaft on boots made before 1970. Between 1970 and 1980, boots have one black label on the inside of the right boot (only) sewn in gold, with the words “handcrafted” in red and “SINCE 1863” in gold.
While looking at the label, look at the printing under it. Does it say, “Made in the USA” only? Or “Made in USA of U.S. and imported parts?” The latter is a clear give-away that the boots are not vintage.
If you see a logo of a steer head stamped into the heel, then the boots were made in the 1980s or after, and do not qualify as being labeled “vintage.” However, quality boots continued to be made by Frye until the company was sold in 2001 to a holding company. After that, quality suffered severely due to cheap materials, machine processes used to assemble the boots, and underpaid labor who have a job to make a product – not “bootmakers” who care about making boots, which the Frye Company was known for.
More information on the history of Frye Boots is here on the Boots Wiki.