In 1912, Leon L. Bean invented a waterproof hunting shoe that launched one of the most successful mail-order businesses in American history. Almost 100 years later, the simple rubber-soled boot with the leather sides continues to be a best seller and the preferred choice for both outdoor sports and casual urban weekends. The shoe that started it all is immortalized as a 15-foot statue, gracing the main entrance to the L. L. Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine.
Building on the success of the hunting shoe, Bean began producing a line of outdoor apparel along with hunting and fishing gear. By 1937, L. L. Bean was a thriving catalog business famous up and down the east coast of the United States. When L. L. Bean died in 1967 at the age of 94, his store had become an American institution, no longer favored by only the outdoorsman, but also by the suburbanite and vacationer in search of quality casual sportswear.
The Bean brand was based on a winning formula: affordable, well-made products, personally tested by a Mainer who knew the outdoors like the back of his hand and who treated each customer like an old friend. Bean’s golden rule of business became his employees’ mantra: “The customer is the most important person ever in this office–in person or by mail.”
In spite of his eighth-grade education, Bean understood what made for good advertising. In the catalog copy, of which he wrote almost every word, Bean wrote like he talked, penning a folksy, authoritative voice. As his grandson Leon Gorman writes in his book, L. L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon, “He made you believe you were buying not just a product but more importantly his judgment and experience.”
Under an image of the hunting shoe, Bean wrote: “Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your foot wear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed.” Or, describing the now classic Bean guide shirt, “This is the shirt that I personally use on all my hunting and fishing trips.” The 1927 catalog, introducing fishing and camping equipment, pitched fishing flies by promising customers, “It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with hundreds of flies to determine the few that will catch fish. We have done that experimenting for you.”
Leon Leonwood Bean was born in Greenwood, Maine, on October 13, 1872. His parents, Benjamin Warren Bean and Sarah Swett, were farmers and horse traders, who died just months apart when L. L. was 12. He and his four brothers and a sister were taken in by relatives in South Paris, Maine, a small village in Maine’s interior about 60 miles north of Portland.
When he was 13 years old, L. L. borrowed a rifle for his first hunting trip, shot his first deer, and commenced a lifelong love of the outdoors. Bean was getting by on odd jobs in 1898 when at the age of 26 he married Bertha Potter, 33, who came from a prominent Freeport family. They had three children: Carl, Warren, and Barbara. Perhaps thinking that Leon could use a steady job, older brother Otho offered him $12 a week to work in Otho’s Freeport dry goods store. Bean took the job but continued to escape to the woods whenever he could.
Bean’s enjoyment in the outdoors was marred by waterlogged shoes, which he attempted to remedy by adding rubber soles to the era’s uniform leather hunting shoe. Working with a Maine shoemaker, Bean developed his shoe and started his nationwide mail-order business by setting up a shop in the basement of Otho’s store. The first Bean catalog was a three-page circular entitled “The Maine Hunting Shoe, designed by a hunter who has tramped Maine woods for the past eighteen years.”
Bean procured a list of nonresident Maine hunting license holders to whom he mailed his catalog. The $3.50 price tag came with a money-back guarantee. Those guarantees came back to haunt Bean. The first shoes malfunctioned, separating at the seams. Out of 100 shoes mailed, there were 90 requests for refunds.
Determined to get his shoe right, Bean borrowed $400 from family and friends and traveled to Boston to meet with representatives from the U.S. Rubber Company, who were able to execute Bean’s design for a dry, warm shoe. When he was ready to do another catalog mailing of his new and improved footwear, fortune smiled on Bean. The U.S. Post Office launched a parcel post service in the same year. This time around the shoe was a great success, and finally, at the age of 40, Leon L. Bean had found his niche.
The first Bean store was a rented space on the second floor of a simple frame building in downtown Freeport. The store evoked a friendly, chaotic energy. Customers had to climb a central flight of stairs and then wind their way through the small assembly line of products being made before they reached the sales department. A hall bulletin board provided a popular messaging service for hunters who would post notices for fellow hunters.
Bean’s hunting shoe received welcomed publicity in 1923 when it was chosen to outfit the Macmillan Arctic Expedition. The Bean shoe was no longer confined to the United States’ woods; it was now making footprints on the North Pole.
The 1920s ushered in the automobile culture. Families from the Rockefellers to the middle class made road trips to Maine, lured by its scenic vacation spots. Bean benefited from this trend, making his store a logical destination for vacationers in search of his newly expanded line of both outdoor and casual clothing, canoes, and camping equipment along with his trademark line of fishing and hunting gear.
Despite the Depression, Bean’s sales quadrupled, possibly aided by the 1933 National Parks Law, which increased the number of national parks with inexpensive accommodations. By 1934, the Bean catalog had mushroomed into 52 pages. By 1937, the L. L. Bean store occupied more than 13,000 square feet and its sales surpassed the $1 million mark. Bean’s customer list now included celebrities like Babe Ruth and Eleanor Roosevelt who made several stops at the Freeport store on her way to the family summer residence at Campobello.
It was also during the 1930s that L. L. Bean gained prominence as a civic leader in Freeport. He served on the school board and the town budget committee and set up one of the first skeet fields in the state so everyone could practice shooting. Today L. L. Bean is a leading sponsor of cultural events throughout the state of Maine. The Bean Summer Concert Series, started in 1999, is offered free to Freeport residents and visitors, who cart lawn chairs and blankets to listen to music on the grounds adjacent to the main store.
In 1939, Bean’s wife Bertha died. The next year Bean married Clair Boudeau, a nurse whom he met while in a Boston hospital recuperating from eye surgery. Unlike Bertha, Clair accompanied her husband on his outdoor expeditions. Photographs from these trips show Clair smiling proudly next to the deer or large ocean fish she has conquered. Clair persuaded L. L. to develop a nurse’s shoe, which appeared in Bean’s 1959 fall catalog, apparently to limited sales.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the American military contracted with Bean for an updated version of his waterproof hunting shoe. Bean made frequent trips to Washington as a consultant to the War Department. With his business on the back burner during the war, Bean wrote a how-to book for the outdoorsman, titled Hunting, Fishing, and Camping. It was published in 1942; it sold 150,000 copies and went through several reprints.
The image of L. L. Bean, the affable outdoorsman who loved people, was at odds with L. L. Bean as a father to his sons. In his biography of L. L. Bean, Leon Gorman describes Bean’s relationships with his sons, Carl and Warren, as “his only dark side.” Leon’s mother, Barbara, Carl and Warren’s sister, who, unlike her brothers, enjoyed a positive connection with her father, recalls Bean’s harsh treatment of Carl and Warren: “He expected perfection. He’d bawl them out in front of people....Made them even more self-conscious than they were.” After completing college, both sons joined the family business. Warren faded into the woodwork, while Carl took his job seriously, often making suggestions for improving the business. According to Jessie Beal, who oversaw personnel issues at the time, L. L. consistently shot down Carl’s ideas only to claim them as his own down the road.
Bean was a full-fledged celebrity by the 1940s and 1950s, profiled in the era’s leading magazines. Time magazine hailed Bean as “The merchant of the Maine woods.” There were feature stories in Life, Forbes, Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, the New Yorker, and the Saturday Evening Post. Bean loved the attention. Following the publication of the Post story, the first thing he would ask his secretary when arriving at the office was how many fan letters had arrived in that day’s mail.
In 1951, in a gesture meant to accommodate early-morning hunters and fisherman to the Freeport Store, Bean threw away the store’s key, declaring it open 24 hours a day. It is questionable how many shoppers frequent the store in the middle of the night, but it helped to perpetuate the image of Bean as a fellow outdoorsman. Since 1951, the store has closed on only two occasions: for the funerals of J.F.K. and L. L. Bean.
In R. M. Montgomery’s unauthorized biography, In Search of L. L. Bean, Montgomery debunks the myth of the outdoorsmen as the typical Bean customer, contending that since the 1930s to present times, Bean’s biggest market has been suburbanites from New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia in pursuit of Bean’s durable casual wear.
Montgomery also states that for the last 22 years of his life, Bean contributed few new ideas to the business while resisting efforts to modernize it. When Leon Gorman went to work for the company in the early 1960s, he described it as just getting by. The famous Bean catalog had deteriorated into a hodgepodge where products were unorganized, outdated, and of uneven quality. When Gorman became CEO in 1967, he revamped the company, adding technological innovations as they became available. By the 1980s, L. L. Bean was back on top.
L. L. Bean had grown from a one-man operation into a global organization with stores throughout the Eastern seaboard and in Japan and China. Bean merchandise has expanded well beyond men’s outdoor clothing and hunting and fishing gear to include clothes for women and children, furniture, and home goods.
If he were alive today, L. L. Bean might be caught off guard by his clothes grabbing fashion headlines. On September 25, 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran the article, “Is L. L. Bean Driving the Runway?” reporting that “The Brawny Man is back,” referring to the new popularity of rugged outdoor clothes. The L. L. Bean boot, field jacket, and flannel shirt, to name a few, have been reinterpreted by Seventh Avenue’s leading designers, including Ralph Lauren, who has built a highly successful international business offering many versions of authentic American apparel.
On the other hand, Bean might applaud his company for spotting a trend. Shortly before the 2010 American fall collections were featuring lumber jackets and wool sweaters with ducks, L. L. Bean had introduced the Heritage Collection, reproducing old standbys, like the chamois shirt, canvas duffle bag, and field coat. Bean’s wardrobe endures, as does his legacy.
In November 1999, the Wall Street Journal picked 10 of the people they thought had the most influence on entrepreneurship in the 20th century. L. L. Bean was one of the 10, ranking alongside Henry Ford, Sam Walton, and Bill Gates.
David Garvin, a professor at Harvard Business School, sums up Bean’s contribution to American business:
The best thing that Leon L. Bean did...was he stayed true to the vision, and there’s a real vision in his company, and it’s distinctive. The second is that he knew how to enact that brand of values in product service. There is a perfect alignment between what the company stands for and what it has historically delivered for this product and service.
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“L. L. Bean Flagship Store–Freeport, Maine–LL Bean Visitor’s Guide.” About.com. New England Travel. http://gonewengland.about.com/cs/maineshopping/a/aallbean.htm .
“L. L. Bean; Retailer of Outdoor Clothing.” L. L. Bean Profile. http://nyjobsourcecom//llbean.html .
L. L. Bean. My Story: The Autobiography of a Down East Merchant. Freeport, ME: The Company, 1960.
Gorman, Leon. L. L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon. Boston, MA: Harvard
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Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “In Search of L. L. Bean,” Books of the Times. New York Times, November 16, 1984.
Montgomery, M. R. In Search of L. L. Bean. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1984.
Smith, Ray A. “Is L. L. Bean Driving the Runway?” Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010.