Nearly 100 years ago, a young man with an entrepreneurial spirit and a better idea began making lanterns in Wichita, Kansas. His name was W.C. Coleman, and the company he founded would change life in America for ever. A fascinating saga, One filled with historical significance, amazing innovations and delightfully fun things to know.
A man with poor eyesight but remarkable vision.
It started as simply as this: In 1900, a young man bent on replenishing his educational funds so he could complete his last year of law school set out to sell lamps in what is now Kingfisher, Oklahoma. He had first encountered the lantern that would change the course of his life in a drugstore window in Alabama. Plagued with such poor vision he sometimes had to ask classmates to read aloud to him, the brilliant light from that window stopped W.C. Coleman in his tracks. He went in to inquire about it and discovered he was able to read even the small print on a medicine bottle by this light.
The lantern had mantles, not wicks, and were fueled by gasoline under pressure instead of coal oil. The light was clean and white. And when Coleman heard the company was looking for salesmen, he used the funds he'd accumulated to buy inventory. He could sell these lights in a flash to merchants who wanted to keep their shops open in the evening.
As it turned out, he couldn't sell even one. Merchants in Kingfisher had just been stung by a lighting salesman with a less-than-stellar product. Shopkeepers would not be swayed. So, using the ingenuity and resourcefulness that would later build his company, W.C. decided to sell a lighting service instead of the lanterns themselves. He drew up contracts with a "no light, no pay" clause and, with the risk removed, customers signed up.
Soon Kingfisher was a beacon on the prairie. The service eventually expanded to cities as far west as San Diego and Las Vegas. In 1902, Coleman relocated to Wichita, Kansas, reasoning it would be about the center of his potential territory. As it turned out, his territory would one day come to encompass the world.
The sunshine of the night.
Coleman was able to purchase the inventory and patents for the Efficient Lantern in 1901. After years of servicing the lights, he knew he could design a better product. And he knew there would be a voracious market.
Electric service was undependable in urban areas and unavailable in rural areas - it would be for many years to come. In 1909, Coleman introduced a portable table lamp that became a staple in rural homes. And in 1914, the young company introduced the lantern that made it famous. At 300 candlepower, it could light the far corners of a barn and provided good light in every direction for 100 yards.
The Coleman lantern extended the time farmers and ranchers could work, significantly increasing productivity. It changed life in rural America. And during WWI, the government declared it an essential item. Nearly 70,000 were sold.
By the close of the decade, the company was a bona fide manufacturing company. It had an organized sales force, a research and development department, and factory output had increased from 120 lanterns in 1909 to 50,000 by the year 1920.
Coleman hits the road.
After the war, people had money and were ready to have fun. The automobile was no longer a novelty. Prices made cars affordable for many families, and with mobility came the urge to travel and explore. The vacation business was booming and Coleman took advantage of it.
Motor camping became the rage. Travelers lashed their belongings to their running boards and took off. Roadways were improving, but they weren't dotted with accommodations. Camping by the roadside.
The fold-up camping stove Coleman developed in 1923 quickly found favor with the auto camping crowd. To retailers, the two-burner was billed as a "keen cooker and a quick seller." It found its way onto front porches and into hunting lodges, vacation cabins and camping trailers. Along with the lantern, which had suddenly found a new market, the camp stove made an ideal traveling companion.
During the next decade, Coleman Outdoor would overtake its competitors and dominate the market.
A little industrial complex on the prairie.
W.C. Coleman surrounded himself with talented people, including son Sheldon who had a degree in mechanical engineering and firsthand production experience working in the company's Canadian plant.
As markets evaporated due to widespread rural electrification, the younger Coleman lobbied for further product diversification. The company began turning out the gas floor furnaces and oil space heaters that would enable it to survive the Depression. Its manufacturing capabilities were now considerable. Coleman was said to have the largest number of working metal lathes west of the Mississippi. And they would soon see heavy action.
The heat of battle.
The Coleman outdoor company's biggest customer became the U.S. military. During WWII, its Wichita plants cranked out projectiles for the Navy and parts for B-17 and B-29 bombers. But their most valuable contribution to the war effort was the development of the GI Pocket camping Stove. The specifications seemed impossible.
The stove had to be lightweight, no larger than a quart thermos, burn any kind of fuel, and operate in weather from -60? to 125? F. Fewer than 60 days after work commenced, Coleman demonstrated a working prototype. And in November 1942, 5,000 of Coleman's little stoves went into battle when U.S. forces invaded North Africa. Credit for ramping up production so they shipped out with the troops goes to another Coleman son, Clarence.
The stoves burned for two hours on a cup of fuel from a jeep or plane. They were carried across every battlefield in Europe and the Pacific. They showed up in tents, foxholes and bombers. An article in the Los Angeles Times stated, "Many a huddle of soldiers got the warmth to survive and fight another day from a Coleman Stove." In all, over a million were produced.
Tapping into America's outside interests.
The ability to sense trends and adapt to change, which had always characterized the company, would now propel it into the second half of the century. All signs said America was moving outdoors. And Coleman company moved with it.
The lantern and the camping stove, both category leaders, became anchors for an expanded line of leisure products, beginning with a galvanized steel cooler introduced in 1954. Three years later, Coleman revolutionized the industry by developing a process to make a plastic liner for coolers and jugs.
With a clear focus on developing and marketing products to help people enjoy the outdoors, the company made several strategic acquisitions that allowed it to quickly add tents and sleeping bags to its growing recreation line.
By the time the '60s drew to a close, the company that began as a one-man light utility had become the biggest name in the camping business.
Climbing mountains and fording streams.
A 1982 article in Southern Outdoors described Sheldon Coleman Sr. as a "blend of superlative sportsman and masterful businessman."
By his own calculation, he had paddled some 5,000 lifetime miles. He knew as much about traversing various kinds of waterways as anyone and won the hearts of canoeists and fishermen alike with a line of Coleman-branded marine products. Made of a revolutionary petrochemical formulation, the RAM-X® canoe was nearly indestructible. And unlike a boat with an aluminum hull, the Coleman craft scarcely made a sound if it clipped a rock or grazed a sand bar.
A small camping stove, descended from the GI Pocket Stove, was the first product in a line of lightweight, high-performance backpacking gear. The Peak 1 line grew to include sleeping bags, lanterns, tents, cookware and a pack with a revolutionary plastic frame as opposed to the traditional welded tubular aluminum. Other products would join the lineup. And another Coleman would join the company. In 1981, Sheldon Coleman Jr. became the third generation to be part of the business, which was turning out 15 million products a year by the end of the decade.
The Coleman Company has been on a roll for a hundred years. The present decade is no exception.
They are defined by their heritage. And excited about their future.