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Hardworking History: Building the Carhartt Archive

By Dave J. Moore, Heritage Manager

Posted in 2019

Three dollars could buy you a good sized order of overalls at the turn of the 20th century. This check was submitted to Hamilton Carhartt & Co. from D.L. Powers of Jonesville, Michigan in 1898.

enlarge image Check paid to Carhartt by Powers Clothing, 1898
Check paid to Carhartt by Powers Clothing, 1898

120+ years later, Powers Clothing is still going strong… and still selling Carhartt. When you have retail partners that old, you know you must be doing something right. Financial records like this are just one example of the materials held by the Carhartt Archive, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2019.

Catalogs, advertisements, sales and personal correspondence, garment tags, photographs, order forms, historic garments – they all come together to tell the story of how the hard work of one traveling salesman evolved into a global brand. Founder Hamilton Carhartt was known to say, “We are building our business for the years, not for a season or two.” In the Carhartt Archive, located just 10 miles from where he set up his first sewing machines, we have the responsibility of documenting those years.

enlarge image Carhartt Archive storage, 2019
Carhartt Archive storage, 2019

The push to create an archive gained steam as Carhartt approached a major milestone in 2014. According to project lead Cheryl Poloni, “I think it’s a reflection of our humble and hardworking culture that we held onto these treasures for so long but didn’t take the time to formalize an archive. As much as we respect our past, we’ve always been a forward-looking company. We continue to do what we do – make great products for workers. The 125th anniversary in 2014 really drove home the value of being able to easily access those elements of our past that inform who we are today.”

Tons of materials were saved over the years, but the lack of formal organization made them difficult to access. Carhartt brought in two archivists (including myself) to inventory, organize, and begin preservation work. We identified gaps in the collection to guide future acquisitions.

enlarge image Carhartt’s first camouflage product, circa 1972 (acquired in 2016)
Carhartt’s first camouflage product, circa 1972 (acquired in 2016)

Today, the archive serves as a one stop shop to access Carhartt’s long and storied history. It’s a lean operation, consisting of an intern and myself, but has been able to significantly impact the brand. A massive digitization initiative has made Carhartt’s history more accessible than ever. Extensive databases built from archival catalogs and price lists have firmly established the histories of Carhartt’s most iconic products. In fact, the company’s Fall 2017 marketing campaign focused on the 100th anniversary of the Carhartt Chore Coat, a milestone that was unearthed through new research by archive staff.

enlarge image 2017 Chore Coat ad featuring archival product from circa 1917
2017 Chore Coat ad featuring archival product from circa 1917

The Carhartt Archive also functions as a source for historical interpretation. It is consulted by the Marketing and Direct to Consumer departments to help bring the brand’s legacy into new campaigns and retail spaces.

enlarge image Iconic Carhartt products on display at the Outdoor Retailer show (Denver, CO), January 2019
Iconic Carhartt products on display at the Outdoor Retailer show (Denver, CO), January 2019
enlarge image Timeline of duck fabric at the Carhartt store (Cascade Station, Portland, OR), July 2019
Timeline of duck fabric at the Carhartt store (Cascade Station, Portland, OR), July 2019

We also help Product Design draw inspiration from vintage garments. The interns in the Carhartt Archive have done amazing work, including a project to digitize heritage camouflage patterns. Some of these patterns have now found their way back into the Carhartt product line.

enlarge image Modern product using our original camo pattern
Modern product using our original camo pattern

We’ve even put the spotlight on our history at local events, like this rally in Ypsilanti, Michigan (close to Willow Run, where B-24 bombers were built during World War II) to break the Guinness World Record for the most people in one place dressed as Rosie the Riveter.

enlarge image Archive display at Rosie the Riveter rally, October 2017
Archive display at Rosie the Riveter rally, October 2017
enlarge image 3,734 Rosie the Riveters (Guinness record) at Eastern Michigan University arena, October 2017
3,734 Rosie the Riveters (Guinness record) at Eastern Michigan University arena, October 2017

Finally, as the presence of a formal heritage department has grown, so has Carhartt’s support for organizations that promote history and archives. The company was a sponsor of the 2019 Midwest Archives Conference Annual Meeting in Detroit, and archive staff are heavily involved with the Business Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. I’ve been proud to serve as editor for the section, helping grow awareness of company archives through our publication, the Business Archives Section Quarterly.

The archive has found a prominent place in the company, mainly because Carhartt consistently operates with its history at the forefront. These are two of the company’s official Core Values:

Act Like Hamilton Carhartt,
Be Inspired by Hardworking People,

Respect Our Past While Walking Bravely into the Future

There will always be new products, new technologies, and new fabrics. Carhartt is constantly looking to improve what we make and how we make it, but the philosophy remains the same as it was when Hamilton first hitched up his horses and wagon: Listen to your customers and build what they need. Listen to your employees and treat them with respect. And in everything you do, operate with responsibility, honesty, and integrity. Here at the Carhartt Archive, we’re proud to steward the materials that back up this philosophy.


Products referenced in the article

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