Honest Value for an Honest Dollar: A Brief History of Carhartt
Honest Value for an Honest Dollar: A Brief History of Carhartt
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date July 20, 2017
Once you hear the word “Americana,” it’s easy to conjure up images of the aesthetic’s most defining pieces. Blue jeans, chore coats, overalls, and flannels are just a few of the garments that have unintentionally shaped the American style landscape for centuries. But what about the brands that helped build that image? Sure, we can credit Ralph Lauren for romanticizing Americana, but there are a select few that have truly embodied the hard-working spirit that defines the United States’ reputation and values both at home and abroad. When it comes to tough clothes for tough work, there’s few that can top the still family owned-and-operated Carhartt.
Founded in Michigan in 1889 by Hamilton Carhartt, the brand began with two sewing machines and five employees. Crafting tough workwear that could handle the rigors of a rapidly industrializing society, the brand’s wares were built for a time when smoke, steam and steel were kings. While the early going was difficult for Hamilton Carhartt & Company (Carhartt himself initially wanted to focus on his successful furnishing business), the brand found success after speaking to rail workers and catering directly to their requests and needs. It’s this niche research that spawned the now-iconic union-made bib overall. With wide legs, extra pockets, and a snag-proof fabrication, it was a piece that was functional but (more importantly) highly durable. Including a “union-made” label stitched on every pair of overalls, Carhartt smartly targeted his blue collar buyer, implying that buying Carhartt for work was a purchase that would go on to support another honest working American.
Honest value for an honest dollar, would become the motto for the then-young outfitter, charting the course for Carhartt and the values it would come to symbolize.
Expanding rapidly in the early 1900s, by 1910 Carhartt had mills in Georgia and South Carolina, production facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco and—inevitably—offices in New York and Paris. Carhartt was so successful, he even pursued a passion project in the automobile industry in 1911. The experiment would be a resolute failure, but wouldn’t sink the brand. With contracts coming in from the U.S. military to supply soldiers for World War I, the factories were primed to pump out product that could handle the rigors of a soldier’s life. However, Carhartt’s bet on the military didn’t pan out. Realizing that he was producing uniforms for a client who ultimately didn’t need them, the experiment would be less profitable than originally intended (though Carhartt would continue to produce gear for wartime workers later on in the century). A clear highpoint during this period would be the introduction of the classic chore coat design in 1923. According to the brand, the design has remained virtually unchanged to this day.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit Carhartt and its workers as hard as any other Americans, and the company shut nearly all of its doors. By the time the company was gearing up for a rebound—including introducing the B01 Men's Firm Duck Double-Front Dungaree in 1932—they were left with only three factories in the United States. To make matters worse, founder Hamilton Carhartt passed away in 1937. His son Wylie, not dwelling on his father’s passing, launched the brand’s “Back to the Land” program. The initiative established Carhartt as an in-demand name for ranch and farm workers, and spurred the opening of facilities in Kentucky and Tennessee—four of which remain open today.
From here, the company continued to bolster its reputation as a workwear stalwart and workers rights advocate—further endearing Carhartt to the very demographic that helped build its business and keep it afloat during the depression. Wylie Carhartt’s daughter, Gretchen, married Robert Valade, who took over leadership in 1952. By the 1970s—thanks in part to major projects like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—Carhartt was in more hands than ever. Purchasing Carhartt’s first “modern” (according to the company) production facility, Carhartt began producing larger orders and private label products and that would hit the shelves of major department stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney. As garment manufacturing began to move abroad, Carhartt remained committed as it always was to the American worker—keeping as much manufacturing in the United States as possible. However, by the late 90s, Carhartt moved production offshore to places like Mexico in order to remain competitive.
As much as Carhartt was a symbol of American industry, it also gained second life later in the 1980s and 1990s as a countercultural symbol. You don’t need to work in a rail yard to appreciate durable, comfortable and affordable clothing. Gaining popularity with punks and skaters, Carhartt inevitably found its home on city sidewalks as much as factory floors. Notoriously, drug dealers fell in love with Carhartt outerwear due to its toughness, warmth and the fact that many items simply have plenty of pockets. It’s this streetwear and subcultural history that helped spawn Carhartt Work in Progress. The product of a licensing deal for European (and inevitably Asian) markets, Carhartt WIP—helmed by Edwin Faeh—manufactured and distributed Carhartt in Europe, giving the WIP team direct control over what was produced, and where it would hit store shelves. Carhartt WIP is known for its more modern, fashionable and distinctly European take on the classic Carhartt Americana, with one of the first collections centering around Faeh’s personal interested in the brand’s signature brown duck canvas. Today, while Carhartt and Carhartt WIP share a similar starting ethos, they’re honestly two separate entities altogether.
With modern collaborations that span everything from A.P.C. to Bape and from Vetements to Vans, the Carhartt “Big C” is as much a mark of durability and quality now, as it ever was. Still owned and operated by the descendants of the family who started it all (Mark Valade is the current CEO), it is a pillar of the Detroit area, and symbolizes the city’s determination and steadfast commitment to hard work. With over 2,000 employees in Detroit, Kentucky and Tennessee, and over seven million garments produced in U.S.-based factories in 2013, the brand has over 125 years of commitment to providing the best for the American worker from manufacturing to purchase and wear.
As Valade explained to Forbes in 2013,
While we have shifted strategy over the years or adapted to the times, Carhartt has never waned on its core value of making the very best apparel for the active worker. We will never compromise that principle of our business model...ever.