“The scarlet is a good fishing shirt as red repels black flies. Also safe for dragging in deer without a coat.” – L.L. Bean, 1960 catalog
Starting with the first mailer promoting the Maine Hunting Shoe, which began, “Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your foot-wear. You cannot expect success hunting big game if your feet are not properly dressed,” L.L. Bean wrote all the product descriptive copy himself.
By 1934, the catalog had grown to 52 pages and was mailed twice yearly to more than 100,000 people, and its arrival had become a much anticipated event. “He may have been hawking boots and boats, but to a country pining for escape from grim economic reality, the merchant from Freeport was also dispensing good old American optimism,” writes author Jim Gorman.
Indie Groundbreaking Book
Indie Groundbreaking Book: Guaranteed to Last
L.L. Bean Celebrates 100th Anniversary with Canvas-Bound Book
100 years ago, a deer hunter in Maine was tired of having wet, cold feet, so he decided to invent a new kind of boot. Working with just $400 of capital and lots of Yankee ingenuity, Leon Leonwood Bean built an amazingly functional boot – and a company – that have both become American icons. Now, a century later, the Maine Hunting Shoe remains essentially unchanged, the flagship product of a $1.6 billion dollar company employing over 5,000 people.
Guaranteed to Last: L.L. Bean’s Century of Outfitting America, is a 100th anniversary tribute to the company’s place in our culture, equipping and encouraging Americans to enjoy the outdoors. The 224-page hardcover book, bound in the canvas made famous by their signature tote bag, sells at the L.L. Bean website for an affordable $19.12 to commemorate the anniversary. Written by Jim Gorman, contributing editor to Backpacker and Popular Mechanics magazines, the book is a fascinating blend of historical facts, timelines, vintage photos, and company memorabilia such as customer letters, catalog covers, and employee profiles.
Among the surprising things I learned is the fact that L.L., as he insisted everyone call him, didn’t start his business until he was 40 years old. The canvas tote, introduced in 1944 as an “Ice Carrier” for toting blocks of ice, was a flop -- until it came out again in 1965 -- this time as the sportier "Boat and Tote," with base and handles colorized in nautical blue or red.
My favorite aspect of the book is the photographic record of L.L. Bean and other family members hunting, fishing, camping and otherwise “testing” their products, showing their dedication to creating products that really work. Customer satisfaction is a huge part of L.L. Bean’s legacy, evident in this saying of L.L.’s that became the company Golden Rule: “Sell good merchandise at reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings, and they’ll always come back for more.” The Bean guarantee on every product they sell is the cornerstone of the company’s success.
“Word-of-mouth advertising and customer satisfaction were critical to L.L.’s way of thinking,” recalled Leon Gorman, L.L.’s grandson and the president of L.L. Bean from 1967 to 2001. “To hear that one of his products failed was a genuine shock to his system. He’d charge around the factory trying to find an explanation. Then he’d write the customer, return his money, enclose a gift, and invite him fishing or do anything to make the matter right.”
The company is still family owned and operated, with three generations of Bean family members currently involved in its operation. “As a privately held company, we’re able to focus on adhering to our values, even if that means the things we do may not be advantageous in the short term,” says Shawn Gorman, fourth generation family member and vice president of card services. “It’s unusual for a direct marketing company to maintain a call center and a distribution center in the northeasternmost part of the country, but in our family, and in our company, there’s a strong commitment to keeping jobs in Maine.”
“As L.L. Bean enters its second century, the company and the country confront the challenge of an economic downturn unrivaled since the Great Depression. But just as L.L. Bean prospered during the ‘30s, it’s weathering the current economic storm in good stead. Its classic apparel and footwear are selling with renewed vigor, as uneasy consumers seek out durable quality and tried-and-true design,” writes author Gorman in the book’s conclusion.
This marvelous book is a fitting tribute to the man whose own writing skill was one of the keys to his success (see sidebar). Written and designed with a reverence for the Bean legacy, but also with the light-hearted free spirit of the northwoods, it’s the perfect coffee table book for both the deer camp and the home.
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by Jim Gorman
224 page hardcover
Published by Melcher Media (January 2012)