Outdoor-clothing businessman Clinton C. Filson receives patent for Cruiser shirt on March 3, 1914.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 11/27/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11151

On March 3, 1914, Clinton C. Filson (1850-1919) receives confirmation of the patent (no. 1088891) for his company's signature "Cruiser shirt" from the U.S. Patent Office. Filson filed the shirt design for patenting on October 28, 1912. The pattern -- employed also for Filson jackets and coats -- can be made from any fabric, but will generally be made from 26-ounce wool (a double layer in the back) and include several pockets. The patent for the Cruiser shirt is timely, with the release of the first Filson catalog that same year.

The name for the Filson design derived from the logging industry's "timber cruiser," or advance scout, who was responsible for scouting forests to identify the most promising timber lands. An alternative name for the shirt -- the Mackinaw -- derived from a similarity to the wool material used in the short coats given to Native Americans in Mackinaw City, Michigan, by the U.S. government in the early 1800s. Over the century following its introduction the Filson Cruiser developed a worldwide reputation as a piece of clothing valued by hunters, prospectors, forestry workers, and others living and working in harsh outdoor environments.

Origins in the Klondike Gold Rush

While the official date of the shirt patent reflects the establishment of Filson's company as a permanent fixture in the Seattle business community, the design may be traced back to the foundation of the company in 1897. The Seattle Woolen Manufacturing Company, Pioneer Alaska Clothing and Blanket Manufacturers, offered goods that first year to many of those hopeful to strike it rich as gold prospectors in the Klondike. To meet the demand, Filson operated his own woolen mill, which produced a wide variety of protective clothing for those eager to join the rush north to seek their fortunes, Mackinaw blankets and clothing being among the items offered for sale.

As the Klondike Gold Rush stretched into 1898, wealth flooded into the city. Clinton Filson was one of many local merchants and businesses catering to and profiting from this influx, even to the extent of expanding locations and enlisting experienced "sourdoughs" to vouch in printed advertisements for the durability and necessity of his wares:

"We use in our Klondike goods only strong long staple wool. If you want reliable goods at manufacturers' prices, call on us at our old store and warehouse, 1119 First Avenue, or at our new store ... corner of Yesler Way and Occidental Avenue, Seattle, Wash. We have a reliable Free information bureau, under the direction of Mike Kelley, an old-reliable Yukon miner, who has been over the pass several times" ("Old Reliable Alaska Mackinaw ...").

Word of mouth among those seeking fortune in the Klondike also furthered Filson's reputation as a source for good outdoor clothing that was made to last and protected the wearer against frigid climates. A hand-written list given in 1898 to Robert McFadden (1858-1940) by an unidentified authority on the Klondike offers recommendations for what types of clothing McFadden should outfit himself with before attempting the journey to the north to prospect gold, and details why these particular items are all needed. Among those listed are several from Filson's store, along with their prices: a pair of leather mitts ($0.50), one sweater ($8), two pairs of woolen mitts ($1), and one Cruiser shirt for $5.

Based in part on the popularity of the Cruiser design for both its shirts and jackets, Filson's reputation for durable clothing flourished. By 1902 the company had relocated to the newly constructed Globe Building designed by architect Max Umbrecht (1872-1955) at 1011 First Avenue, and was called the Clinton C. Filson Men's Furnishings & Manufacturer -- Miners' and Lumbermen's Clothing Store. The choice of location was good for the company's customer base, since the Globe Building also operated as a hotel for miners and other laborers in need of good work clothing. In 1924, the company moved to new quarters at 1005-7 First Avenue.

Patent Approved, Allowed to Lapse

The design Clinton Filson submitted for patent approval in 1912 shows three views of the shirt. The first is a view of the front, with four button-flap pockets of varied sizes stitched into the fabric. Side views in the second and third drawings illustrate the reinforced stitching throughout the design, with a large single pocket on the back of the shirt (suggested by some as a good place to store a topography map). The Cruiser name was also patented by Filson and approved along with the design on March 3, 1914.

A Filson catalog entry from 1922 highlights the company's use of Mackinaw wool made specifically for its products. Owing to their widespread use in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the wool serge Filson Cruiser and pants were dubbed the "Alaska Tuxedo" and seen as the outfit of choice for anyone working in the timber industry. Later options for the Mackinaw coat included a more fashionable variation of the Cruiser design omitting the single large pocket on the back, yet retaining wool as its core material, offered in plaid colors of either "Brown-Green-White" or "Black-Red-White." The advertisement featuring this plaid version of the coat shows a smiling gentleman, one hand posed in pocket while the other clutches a smoking pipe: a nod toward the company branching out from its traditional customer -- the American outdoorsman -- to market to a more cosmopolitan consumer.

By 1927 the Cruiser design had become so popular with outdoor enthusiasts and the working class alike that the company filed a lawsuit to protect the pattern from duplication. Many competitors attempted to make minor changes to the design, in order to circumvent patent law and capitalize on these knockoffs minus the Cruiser name. Owing to the cost of continued litigation over infringements, the Filson Company eventually let the patent lapse, allowing copies by others to continue in earnest.

Widespread Popularity

The C. C. Filson Company maintained a loyal customer base into the twenty-first century, with the Filson Cruiser as a mainstay product. Generations of lumberjacks, hunting guides, fishermen, and surveyors wore shirts and jackets with the Cruiser name, often handing them down with little change in their original condition. A Filson customer since the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service as of 2015 continued to rely on Cruiser jackets as standard issue for all its personnel. Some changes to the Cruiser products occurred over the years, such as an adaptation to a four-pocket layout and reliance on outside vendors to provide fabric, instead of using wool fabric produced onsite. However, the quality of the wool used in Cruiser shirts and jackets remained consistent, using processes that specially milled and custom-dyed the fabric.

In 2008 Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow (b. 1974) summarized the social evolution of Filson clothing from its inception more than 100 years ago to the contemporary era: ''It's the idea that when you buy a Filson tin-cloth jacket, it was originally intended for the field, with lots of pockets for bullets or cigarettes ... now they work for cellphones and iPods'' (Moore).

As with all its garments from the time of the company's founding through 2015, a lifetime guarantee only added to the Cruiser's appeal and longevity, even as the users of the product changed from the early days of exploring the Klondike for gold.

Sources: Nathaniel Reade, "Big Mac: The Filson Mackinaw Is a Durable American Beauty," GQ, September 1992, p. 84; Historical Statistics of the States of the United States: Two Centuries of Census, 1790-1990 ed. by Donald Judd (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), 38; "Old Reliable Alaska Mackinaw and Blanket Factory" (advertisement), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 10, 1898, p. 10; "Robert McFadden's List of Prices for Klondike Gold Prospecting Clothing and Supplies," ca. 1898, University of Washington Digital Collections website accessed November 5, 2015 (http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/ pioneerlife/id/2709/rec/36); "Clinton C. Filson: January 27, 1850-December 21, 1919," C. C. Filson folder, Resource Management Records collection, Klondike Gold Rush -- Seattle Unit, National Park Service, Seattle, Washington; Booth Moore, "American Heritage Brands Make a Comeback," Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2008 (www.latimes.com); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "C. C. Filson Company" (by Fred Poyner IV), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 25, 2015).

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