Coleman!

In military terminology, a countersign is a word, phrase or signal that must be given to allow passage beyond anyone at a secure post, such as a sentry.  Usually, it is agreed upon a priori.  For example, in Normandy, on the beaches and on the cliffs, on D-Day, June, 1944, the password response to “flash” was “thunder.”  Sometimes it was more fluid, even impromptu, especially if a leak was suspected.  So, it was often based on contemporary culture:
          (approacher) Pass please.
          (sentry) Yankees Centerfielder.
          (approacher) DiMaggio.
          (sentry) Come through. [1]

Well, my REI winter holiday shopping catalog just arrived, packed with other assorted postal bombardments we are prone to receiving in our mailboxes in this current pre-Christmas season. 

REI.  That brings back more than a few autobiographical memories, and I suppose that’s as good a reason as any to trigger the dance of my fingers across my keyboard to tap out an essay that’s been brewing since the first days of the ‘round the country road trip we took in October.

Vintage REI logo. I couldn’t find one from either the very early days, or a good modern one.

REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc) is a retailer of high-end sporting and outdoor adventure equipment. It’s organized as a cooperative.  It originated in Seattle and has since spread to 138 stores around the country.

I became aware of REI when I first moved to Seattle, in 1980, fresh out of grad school – and fresh out of money.  I mean broke.  I literally had zero dollars and zero cents.  Just a Chevron credit card and – for some reason, maybe since I had just earned an engineering graduate degree – an American Express Card.  On my cross-country trip from Nashville to Seattle I stopped in Denver for a few days; my dad loaned me $200 cash so I could put down a deposit on an apartment. As I was about to pull away he asked if I had any money.  None.  None?  He handed me the cash.  We hugged.  He cried.  It was the first time I ever saw him cry. And that was it.  (I spent part of it to get into Yellowstone National Park on the way to the Great Pacific Northwest).

There is a rush you get after being completely broke, thinking Hamburger Helper and Chunky Soup on toast are great meals, and then cashing fat paychecks for a few months.  [Also, after those few months, a collection agency found me, as a result of my “disappearance” after leaving Nashville.  I was able to resolve that with my newfound wealth]. [2]

One of the places where I splashed cash was REI, in downtown Seattle, taking up much of an entire city block at 11th and Pine.  At the time it might have still been the only REI store in the entire country, even though it was founded in 1938. I think that was still the original location. I soon bought a membership in the Co-op and have maintained it all these years – that’s why I still get catalogs.  And rebates.

Old REI patch. I guess people stitched these onto their backpacks and jackets. Vintage.

All the equipment was (and is) top notch.  I finally had money for needed (or wanted) equipment. Winter was approaching, so at first for skiing.  Poles, skis, boots, parkas, gloves, goggles, ski pants, scarves.  Then shoes for running (New Balance) and boots for hiking the Cascade Mountains (Raichle).

In spring as “better” weather approached, I bought some summer gear, including high-end golf shoes (Foot Joy), baseball shoes, and a camping lantern, made by Coleman.  [“Better” is definitely a relative term in the Pacific Northwest.  Let’s just say it rained less and the sun came out a couple hours a day]

Although I didn’t get the golf and baseball shoes at REI, I did get the Coleman Lantern there.  What a brilliant device.   Not just brilliantly bright, but simply brilliant.

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William Coffin Coleman (he usually went by “WC”) was born May 21, 1870 in Chatham, NY.  Chatham is about halfway between the Massachusetts state line and the Hudson River.  That’s about 6 miles east of Kinderhook, NY, home of the US’s 8th President, Martin Van Buren, who often went by “Old Kinderhook”, or “OK” for short.  Soon after, in 1871, while WC was still a suckling infant, the family moved to the far southeast corner of Kansas to homestead, getting their own land to work into a home and to farm.  The long arduous journey was made partly by train, and partly by covered wagon.

The brutally violent and bloody wars in the plains between Native Americans and the US Army were still underway.  It took some gumption and bravery to undertake the long transfer of residence.

Details on Coleman’s life before fame are a bit skimpy, sketchy and inconsistent.  Here’s what I found and have decided upon.

Apparently, Coleman had at least two brothers, as there is reference to them helping with some funding some decades later.  Unfortunately, the Colemans’ father passed away when young William was only 11.  He helped his mother run the farm and found odd work, mostly as a salesman of small merchandise.  He continued selling things – both travelling and in stores – and was able to eventually get a job for a while as a schoolteacher after completing a degree in nearby Emporia, at the Kansas State Teacher’s College (now Emporia State University).

He was also Superintendent of Schools in the Blue Rapids (KS) school district for a while. Then, it seems, he changed the direction of his professional intentions and attended Law School at the University of Kansas.  Always short on money, yet always a good salesman, Coleman sold typewriters as a traveling salesman to pay the bills and tuition.  As money got tighter, he was soon doing more traveling and selling than he was studying law.

Much of the following is Coleman Company lore, but I’m sure there is much truth in it.

One fateful evening in the mid-1890s, while on a typewriter selling tour, Coleman found himself in the hard-scrabble, dusty, dirty, pavement-free coal mining town of Brockton, Alabama.  There, in a drug or department store window, he saw a lantern shining brightly.  He’d never seen anything like it.

It burned gasoline, fed to its combustion under pressure.  He immediately changed from selling typewriters to selling lanterns for the Irby-Gilliland Company, maker of the lanterns, out of Memphis, TN. But first he had to buy the rights to sell the lantern, from the Irby family; the only region he could afford that was near home was in Oklahoma. I can’t find the value, but guessing around $500.

Oh, and Coleman, already long absent, finally dropped out of law school.

Originally sales went poorly. Turns out many customers had already experienced unsatisfactory results, despite the lantern’s brilliance, as the fuel delivery clogged with carbon deposits, and could not be easily cleaned.  Word had gotten around.

Coleman was already in for the $500, probably some it a loan from the Irbys and his farming brothers.  Not about to give up, he hit upon some clever ideas here.  First, he began leasing the lanterns for a small sum, instead of selling them.  He absorbed the risk of lantern failure, and replaced them if/when they failed. He could then refurbish and re-lease them.  This changed his product flow nicely.  Now with promising cash flow, his brothers invested further in his lantern sales and leasing business as well.  Second, with some cash available Coleman could afford to start tinkering with the design in his home until it was virtually flawless.

Until then lanterns were largely dull, wasteful and dangerous.  Dull because the light came from the flame.  Wasteful because much of the energy of combustion went to heat, not light.  And dangerous since the flow of fuel (usually kerosene) was either by wicking up, or gravity drip down, and hence the fuel source reservoir could be accessed by flame, especially in the event of a tipping or dropping accident.  Think Mrs O’Leary and the cow in the shed, Chicago, 1871.

WC Coleman: inventor, tinkerer, entrepreneur, marketer and businessman extraordinaire.

The gas lantern – especially with Coleman’s improvements – solved all those problems.  Instead of a wick, Coleman’s lanterns had a “mantle” which glowed, especially when treated with special chemicals (including, at the time, thorium – yikes!).  The gasoline burned just hot enough to get the mantle’s chemical coatings to glow.  And even though it burned pure gasoline it was much safer, since no flame could reach the gasoline reservoir when accidentally tipped over.  In fact, Coleman soon made his lanterns so rugged that they wouldn’t even break when dropped or tipped over (I can attest to all of this.  However, never, never try to get the campfire to burn more brightly by pouring Coleman’s special white gasoline directly onto the fire.  I can attest to this too. 151 rum is much safer).

Replacing the special mantle occasionally was the only maintenance required.

Coleman bought all the rights to the pressure-fed gasoline lantern from the Irby family.  It’s been purported that this might have cost him a further $3,000. This was also achieved by a loan from the Irbys and his brothers — what Coleman often called “the best sale I ever made.” Implementing his improvements, he started a manufacturing facility in Wichita, Kansas, moved his family there, and began selling the soon wildly popular Coleman Lantern.  In a time of scarce electrical lighting, and pale gas or oil lighting, his lanterns were enormously popular.

Pretty much everyone knew of the popular Coleman Lantern.  He soon applied the pressure fed gasoline concept to make conveniently portable cooking stoves as well.

Legend has it that cattlemen in Colorado once saw a lantern burning so brightly, miles away up in the Rocky Mountain Foothills, that they were sure they had discovered a new star.

_____________________________________________________

Green single mantle Coleman Lantern, vintage 1945.

In times of  military engagement, especially when infantry personnel of one army are likely to come in contact with – or even infiltrate the lines of – the personnel of another army, the use of passcodes and countersigns becomes very important.  This happened to great extent in much of World War II.

In the Asian and Pacific theaters, Japanese intelligence kept spies and infiltrators up to date on American expressions and culture.  Still, this posed little problem, as the US quickly learned to use passcodes and contrasigns like “Lolla-Palooza”, and “Lolli Pop”, words full of Ls. Our Asian allies, the Chinese, could usually pronounce the L.  For Japanese the “L” sound was virtually impossible; even when pronounced as “L” it was so awkward that, either way, like R or L, it was a give-away.

On the other hand, it was much more difficult with our European enemy, the Germans.  It’s well known that German infiltrators and imposters in US uniforms could and did cause much confusion with “false intelligence” about where nearby towns, roads and other divisions lay.  This occurred especially during the Battle of the Bulge, December, 1944. Enough Germans spoke near flawless English, able to produce both American and British accents, that it was quite a dilemma.  Many had been educated in America or Britain.  And, they were up-to-date on much of American culture.

[It’s a strong probability that more Americans were conversant to fluent in German than the other way around.  Many GIs were first generation Germans, who grew up speaking German and often stayed in touch with family in Germany until the war.  More than a few of them were Jews who had fled Germany just a few years before.  It’s also a bit ironic that FDR, then president of the US, was quite conversational in German as well, since he traveled there often — yearly it is said — with his wealthy parents as a youth, and even attended school there at least one year].

There were other problems in Europe too. Over-reliance on modern American culture for security sometimes led to costly, if not funny, mistakes.  For example, on Dec 21, 1944, during “the Bulge” US MP’s and sentries were alerted to the possibility of a German disguised as Brigadier General Bruce Clarke.[3] Well, Clarke himself soon approached a checkpoint and was queried as to whether the Chicago Cubs played in the National League or the American League.  Not a baseball fan, and pressed for an answer, Clarke guessed American (incorrectly) and subsequently spent several frustrating hours in detainment.  [The “intelligence” that Clarke, and other officers, were being impersonated might well have been counterintelligence supplied by clever Germans].

One thing the Germans did not know of American culture was the superb performance and popularity of the Coleman Lantern. In fact, these were used throughout the military.  So, it came to be that the perfect and indecipherable security countersign/passcode combination was to respond “Coleman” to the challenge query “Lantern.”

WC Coleman lived long enough to learn of and enjoy this quirk of history.  He was once elected mayor of Wichita, choosing to only serve one term.  He lived until 1957, still engaged in running his company, as an octogenarian.  He’s buried in his adopted hometown of Wichita and has a plaque on the Wichita Walk of Fame, in City Center.

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Although the family lost controlling interest in the company long ago, the Coleman® line of outdoor products is highly respected, even today.  The lanterns remain popular, although the mantles are doped with safer chemicals [Extremely low voltage LEDs threaten to quash them soon].  The stoves are still popular with outdoor enthusiasts.  Coleman has expanded in the camping paraphernalia area to include almost everything outdoor: tents, sleeping bags, jackets, vests, collapsible chairs (some with drink holders, beer-sized), tables, boots, and coolers.  And much more. All of it is high end and highly regarded.  “Coleman” means “quality.” Of course, much of it is available at REI, where everything is high-end, at all 138 locations. Most products are available – naturally, it’s 2021 – on Amazon.  Next day delivery.

Wishing you all a pleasant and happy shopping and holiday season.

Lantern!

Coleman!

Joe Girard © 2021

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] DiMaggio left baseball to serve in the military, 1943-45, returning afterward to many All-Star seasons.  But everyone knew he was the Yankee center fielder.  The most popular baseball player in America, at the time, even when he wasn’t playing.

[2] Hamburger Helper by Betty Crocker.  If you had it, it meant you had meat.  HH stretched meat to more meals.  Chunky Soup, by Campbell, was thick soup with chewy hunks of meat and veggies.  Kind of a splurge, but we always got that (and the beef for HH) on sale.

[3] MP is Military Police

Other stuff: The concept of pressurized gasoline lanterns (and stoves) here.  Old Town Coleman: How Pressure Appliances Work Part I Coleman US lanterns 1981 – 2000 – The Terrence Marsh Lantern Gallery (terry-marsh.com)

Interesting unofficial source of some info

8 thoughts on “Coleman!”

  1. Mark

    I remember buying a couple of rain jackets at that REI in Seattle, in the 90’s. You and Audrey (I think) had already moved to Denver.

  2. Steve Rolfe

    Joe, another fascinating article.

    The old Capital Hill REI defined REI for a couple of decades, but it was not the first. The original was a gas station on Queen Anne Hill. Later, the one I remember, was on Pike or Pine at about 5th Ave. It was a small spot in the basement with bins of stuff much like the much bigger store to come on Capital Hill. It was very near the Mountaineers office which was on the top floor. They could have been on the same block. I loved to wander through the store to sift through the bins for the amazing items they stored. As a kid, Boy Scout in fact, I didn’t have much money to buy things, but we did buy food dehydrated items, tiny salt and pepper shakers, Swiss Army pocket knives and, of course, later Raichle Rotundo hiking boots which everyone owned. REI was such a big customer of Swiss Army and Raichle that they directly ordered them from Europe. One of the key elements of REI is its “cooperative” governance. It is member owned. It and hundreds of other businesses grew out of the cooperative movement of the 30’s in the Northwest.

    Fascinating story about Coleman. As a boy both the lantern and stove were omnipresent when camping, which was the only vacations we had growing up. So dominate were they that I never thought of another way to light a campsite or cook. It is amazing that the “mantle” conducts the fuel, but doesn’t burn up itself.

    The way you connect the three stories is wonderful. Passwords go back 1000’s of years. But, Coleman – Lantern, who knew?

    1. Joe Post Author

      Steve, thanks for the add’l info. I knew there was more to the story, but I got tired of digging through so many websites.
      Yes! Swiss army knives. I bought my 1st one there in spring ’81. Gosh, I thought I was so “grown up.” [I was never a Boy Scout].
      Grown up? Barely in time, too. I met Audrey just the next March.
      Later
      Joe

    2. Joe Post Author

      Steve, Those Raichle hiking boots lasted me about 25 yrs of solid heavy use. One of my better investments.
      You know why they were so expensive?
      Because they were worth it!
      Ciao

  3. Roberta

    I can’t remember details like you do, but we may have been at the same REI at the same time. I do remember one camping trip together with our Boeing gang. Coleman Lantern may have come along too.

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