Academic journal article Material Culture

Camping, Climbing, and Consumption: The Bean Boot, 1912-1945

Academic journal article Material Culture

Camping, Climbing, and Consumption: The Bean Boot, 1912-1945

Article excerpt

Introduction

Beside the entryway to the L L Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine, sits a 16-foot-tall boot (Figure 1) On any given day, hundreds of visitors will take their picture beside the statue Some people stand alongside the boot, the shoelaces just grazing the tops of their heads; others sit atop the boot's chocolate brown rubber base; smaller children even climb under the boot, kneeling beneath the tan chain-tread rubber sole, pretending to cower beneath the footstep of a giant.

This is L. L. Bean's replica of their Bean Boot, built in 2009 The company's decision to create a larger-than-life sculpture of one of their products evokes questions about the status of the Bean Boot, not only within the L. L. Bean company, but also within American society Through an historical analysis of the Bean Boot, from its invention in 1912 to World War II, this article explores what has made the Bean Boot such an iconic piece of footwear, particularly within the Northeast The Boot's popularity reflects the commercialization of outdoor recreation that began in the late nineteenth century and continued to develop rapidly into the twentieth More than a simple reflection of an increase in consumer-driven outdoor recreation, the Boot reveals the emergence and expansion of a very particular kind of outdoor recreationalist: the sport This typically white, middle-class urbanite with an interest in outdoor recreation and leisure became the prime consumer of the Boot almost as soon as Bean developed the technology Not an idealized woodsman, nor an elite, resort-going tourist, the sport embodied one common way of engaging with wilderness in the early twentieth century The sport embraced consumerism and urban life and saw wilderness not as an alternative to, but a critical part of that life By examining the making, marketing, and consumption of the Boot, as well as analyzing its presence in popular American culture - this paper reveals the complexities of the outdoor recreation industry and the varied approaches to wilderness in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Woodsman: Leon Leonwood Bean's Mythical Market

When Leon Leonwood Bean invented the Maine Hunting Shoe in 1912, he had little intention of creating a brand that would last for over a century For Bean, the Boots were simply a functional solution to a time-worn battle between hunters and the frigid, wet New England woods Bean was born in the small town of Greenwood, Maine in 1872 From a young age, Bean spent his leisure time tramping through the Maine woods, fishing and hunting deer and grouse, as did many residents of the state During this time, hunting and fishing boots were typically either rubber galoshes or all-leather boots Both rubber galoshes and all-leather boots posed distinct problems for the Northeastern outdoorsman Rubber boots provided little warmth, and leather boots were not waterproof - both of which were particularly pressing issues during deer hunting season, which began in November (Gelbert 1996).

The legend of the Bean Boot as described in L. L. Bean's company archives, Bean says that "returned from a hunting trip with cold, damp feet and a revolutionary idea " He took his pair of rubber boots, cut off the tops, and had a local cobbler stitch in leather (elk hide) uppers His first set of 100 boots was unsuccessful due to improper stitching, but he hired a new cobbler and secured a stronger rubber His second set was much more successful; standing at 10 inches tall, the Maine Hunting Shoe was shorter than most boots from the period Bean began marketing the shoes in a 3-page flyer (Dow 1999, 65).

According to L. L. Bean biographer M R Montgomery, "[Bean] thought, from the beginning, that his customers would be woodsmen" (1984, 185) Woodsmen were local hunters and fishermen of the early twentieth century who practiced what was popularly defined as "woodcraft," which James Morton Turner (2002) describes as the act of "living off the land: building lean-tos, cooking over an open fire, and hunting for food " These men lived not only in Maine, but in woodland areas throughout the Northeast They attempted to avoid involvement in the industrial market economy, and rather sought to sustain themselves from their environment; they built lean-tos rather than purchasing tents, made their own snowshoes, and even sewed their own blankets Woodsmen did not hunt or fish for recreation, but for economic self-sufficiency (Turner 2002, 462). …

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