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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
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.
The push to create an archive gained steam as Carhartt approached a major milestone in 2014. According to project lead Cheryl
“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.
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
Carhartt Chore Coat, a milestone that was unearthed through new research by archive staff.
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.
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.
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.
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 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