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The Near-Death Experience That Inspired the First Patented Down Jacket

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Many of us couldn’t imagine enduring these chilly winter months without down jackets—they keep us warm without weighing a ton. The outerwear was first patented in the U.S. in 1940 by Eddie Bauer; it would become his most iconic and successful product and change the nature of his business, taking it from a local storefront to a nationally known brand. But he might not have come up with the idea if not for a scary near-death experience that occurred 80 years ago this month.

Bauer outside of his store at 215 Seneca, Seattle. Photo courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

The Little Shop That Could

Bauer was just 21 when he started his business in 1920, renting 15 square feet of space inside another man’s gun shop in downtown Seattle and stringing tennis rackets. According to company historian Colin Berg, Eddie Bauer’s Tennis Shop operated for about a year—just enough time for Bauer to save enough money to open his own storefront.

Bauer’s Sports Shop was a hunting, fishing, and sporting goods store, but Bauer was more than just a merchandiser, he was an outdoorsman, too, and developed gear based on his own needs and the needs of his clients. “If I didn’t trust the equipment, it wasn’t stocked,” he once said. “If I needed equipment that wasn’t available elsewhere, I developed it myself.” If you’ve ever played badminton, for example, you’ve used the shuttlecock Bauer developed and patented.

Bauer backed everything in his shop with a lifetime guarantee—a rare thing in the ‘20s, and something Bauer called “my greatest contribution to the consumer … that guarantee was part of what I sold”—and he only hired people who, like him, were adept at outdoor pursuits. “People knew that if something was in Eddie Bauer’s store, we had personally put it to a rugged test,” he said. His small shop was successful, with a reputation not just for quality goods but also a knowledgeable staff.

For someone who had a passion for hunting and fishing, owning an outfitting shop was the best thing ever: “My business was also my hobby,” Bauer said. “It was like one long vacation. I loved every bit of it.”

A Fateful Trip

The shop might have stayed a small but successful business if not for a fishing trip Bauer took with his friend Red Carlson, a trapper from Alaska, in January 1935. The pair headed to a canyon in the Olympic Peninsula, where they fished for steelhead. That cold, snowy January day, their haul was 100 pounds, and they stripped off their heavy wool mackinaw jackets, climbing out of the canyon in just their wool shirts and long underwear.

The car was a mile away, and the 200- to 300-foot climb out of the river canyon was steep. As they hiked, Bauer—wet from his bag of fish and sweating profusely—began to fall behind his friend. When he reached the top of the canyon, he stopped and leaned against a tree to rest. “He was literally falling asleep on his feet, nodding off,” Berg says. “All that moisture froze in the cold and the snow, and he was getting hypothermic. He was in a bad way.”

Thankfully, Bauer was carrying a revolver. He pulled it out and fired two shots to alert his friend, who came back to get him and helped him to the car. If Bauer had been by himself, he might not have survived. But despite the scary experience, “he wasn’t about to give up winter fishing or hunting,” Berg says. “He realized what he needed was a really breathable, warm jacket that he wouldn’t have to take off when he was working strenuously in the cold.”

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Designing with Down

Inspiration struck when Bauer remembered the stories his Uncle Lesser had told him as a kid about his time in the Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria, before he had emigrated to the United States. Russian officers, Lesser had told Bauer, wore feather-stuffed coats to keep warm in the bitter, bitter cold.  And now, Bauer would create a jacket that would allow American outdoorsmen to do the same.

Bauer had worked with feather merchants making flies for his store, so he knew where to get high quality goose down. “He made a pattern for a jacket that he thought would fit him,” Berg says, “and had a local seamstress assemble the prototype.” The resulting jacket was made of high-thread count cotton (which kept the down from escaping) with diamond quilting in the torso (which kept the down in place) and alpaca-lined sleeves.


The oldest Skyliner in the Eddie Bauer Archives, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

Bauer took his new outerwear—which he called the Blizzard-Proof Jacket—to his friend Ome Daiber, “a well-known climber at the time, who had also developed some climbing gear,” Berg says. “As a mountaineer himself, he immediately knew the importance and value of it.” Daiber, who had a small manufacturing operation, created the first generation of the jackets for Bauer, who continued to tinker with the design. Then, in 1936, he released a new version of the jacket—he called it the Skyliner—and began to advertise in Field & Stream, American Rifleman, and other hunting and fishing magazines. “He didn’t have a catalog at that point,” Berg says, “so sales happened through mail order and in his shop.”

The jacket proved to be a hit right away, and in 1939, Bauer filed for a patent on his jacket, which he received in 1940. Interestingly, though, the patent didn’t mention down feathers at all. “It could have been insulated with anything as far as the patent was concerned,” Berg says. In fact, none of Bauer’s 11 patents relating to down jackets actually mention down: “They all happened to be insulated with goose down, but it was really the visual quilting pattern that was the patented element.”

Then, in 1942, Bauer made another down jacket that would change his business: the first down-insulated flight jacket of the U.S. Air Force, called the B-9. The jacket—along with the accompanying pants—could keep aviators warm for up to 3 hours at -70 degrees F, and allow them to float with 25 pounds of gear for up to 24 hours. The jacket’s label read “Eddie Bauer, Seattle, U.S.A.,” and when aviators returned home in 1945, they wrote letters asking where they could get more down gear. The servicemen became the company's core customer base when it launched the catalog that same year.

Images for the Blizzard Proof and Skyliner Jackets in the inaugural Eddie Bauer catalog. Photo courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

The Skyliner was a key part of his collection from 1936 to 1986 (and was offered again in 1995, 2003, and 2010), and was included in the business’s inaugural 1945 catalog. Testimonials printed in the catalog heaped praise on the product: “I was so pleased with the down Blizzard Proof Jacket, I am ordering three more as presents for my duck hunting friends,” one NYC man wrote. “My husband thinks his down jacket is the best thing that was ever made,” wrote a New Hampshire wife. And, said Mrs. L.E. from Kodiak, Alaska, “I wear it everywhere out of doors. I didn’t buy any woolen underwear, but with this jacket on I certainly don’t need any.” Other satisfied customers say the jacket is “tops” and “worth its weight in gold.”


Two of Bauer's other down products: A sleeping robe and a sleeping bag. Photo courtesy of the Eddie Bauer Archives.

Lighter Than a Feather

Jackets weren’t the only thing Bauer created with down: In the 1940s, he made comforters, pillows, a “sleeping robe,” and a sleeping bag that was was guaranteed to keep people warm down to temps of -60 degrees F. And though one of Bauer’s early slogans was “Lighter than a feather, warmer than 10 sweaters,” because he wanted to make things as warm as possible, he packed in a lot of down. “The sleeping bag weighed 18 pounds,” Berg says. “The marketing tagline was ‘Built for service you’ll never require.’ But you’d need a dogsled to carry it around.” This was a pattern; the jacket Bauer designed for the 1963 American ascent of Mount Everest had so much down in it that it was rated to -85 degrees F. “I talked to Tim Hornbein from the expedition, and he said, ‘It was in our packs most of the time,’” Berg says. “They couldn’t climb in it, it was so warm.” 

Over the years, the designs of Bauer’s down jackets have changed, of course, as new materials became available: The company began blending cotton with nylon in the 1950s, and started using Ripstop nylon in 1958. “It was a little bit like pulling teeth to get Eddie to go that route, because he was afraid that lighter fabric wouldn’t stand up to the durability that was so important to him,” Berg says. (After all, this is a guy who believed that “there can be no compromise of quality when lives depend on … performance.”) His original down jacket, meanwhile, probably wouldn’t look out of place in modern retail stores. “Some of the jackets from the ‘70s and ‘80s seem much more dated, either because of the cut or the color,” Berg says. “But lots of people say you could just take the original off of the form and wear it today.”

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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