Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

A Brief and Shining History of the Coleman Brand

colemand brand
Coleman U.S.A./Facebook
A few select brand names serve as de facto stand-ins for quality. When you hear the name Mercedes, you likely think of a well-made automobile. The name FedEx probably calls to mind swift and reliable deliveries. And Boar’s Head make many think of a damn fine sandwich.

In the arena of recreational outdoor gear, few company names enjoy the recognition or the trust engendered in consumers as that of Coleman, the 117-year-old maker of lanterns, camp stoves, tents, coolers, and a curated line of camping, cooking, and specialty lighting products. Let me say this up front: no, I’m not on the Coleman payroll, but, yes, I have drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. I own and regularly use the Roadtrip X-Cursion grill, a Steel-Belted cooler, a tent, a lantern, a camp stove, and more. In other words, I’m an admirer of the Coleman brand because I know firsthand that their products work. And I’ve had more than enough field experience with products that fall short to know what that’s worth.

Why is Coleman such a successful company? Let me tell you …

First, a Bit of Backstory

w c coleman
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

William Coffin (W.C.) Coleman was born in 1870 and moved to the Midwest within a year. His family settled in a small town in Kansas, the state which would remain Coleman’s home for the rest of his life. W.C.’s father died in 1881, prompting the youngster to begin selling small goods in an effort to make money for the family. After an abortive attempt at law school, Coleman would return to sales as a young man, this time selling typewriters.

During a fateful sales trip, Coleman was reportedly walking down a sidewalk one evening when he was transfixed by the bright glow of a gasoline-burning lantern perched in a shop’s window. The crisp white light allowed Coleman to see clearly despite his weak eyesight. The moment was transformative: The young salesman switched to gasoline lantern sales at once, and within a few years had acquired the rights to the lamps he sold and had made improvements on their design.

Coleman (Sort of) Goes to War

Sales of the Coleman Arc Lamp were steady, but not stratospheric. It would take The Great War (aka World War I) to create a serious leap forward. But long before American Doughboys were sent “over the top” in the trenches of Europe, Coleman lanterns were contributing to the war effort. The government distributed them to farmers as early as 1914 in an effort to help farms produce more crops that could be sent along to our allies fighting against the Triple Alliance powers.

Missteps Pave the Way

By the 1920s, Coleman was recognized across the U.S. and around the globe as a maker of fine lighting equipment. During that decade, the company began to branch out into multiple other product areas, making everything from waffle irons to coffee makers.

40 Millionth Lanter – 1986, Photo Courtesy Coleman Image used with permission by copyright holder

While most of the products they made were considered to be of fine quality, the sales were abysmal; the brand could not elbow its way into new market sectors, and eventually abandoned their attempts.

This willingness to try new arenas and then to back out rather than double down would inform the company for the next century.

OK, Now Coleman Goes to War

Patent Drawing Showing Coleman Model 520 Stove No 2363098
B.W. Tullis/U.S. Patent Office B.W. Tullis/U.S. Patent Office

When American ground troops were first deployed in force in World War II, Coleman went with them. The U.S. Army landed in North Africa in late 1942 accompanied by several thousand Model 520 Coleman Military Burners, aka G.I. pocket stoves. This compact, three-pound stove could burn using almost any type of liquid fuel and could fit into a soldier’s pack with ease. It was considered by many an absolutely essential piece of wartime gear.

WWII brought Coleman lucrative contracts to develop parts for several heavy bombers, but once the war ended, these contracts ceased as well. The demand for stoves did not end, though; it merely shifted to the recreational sector. The G.I. pocket stove led to the development of the camp stoves for which the brand is still so well known.

Mid-Century Through Modern: Focusing In

W.C. Coleman died in 1953. Control of his namesake company would twice pass down through the family before eventually being assumed by investors. Fortunately, they established fidelity to quality endured. During the second half of the 20th century, the Coleman Company tried its hand at several more ultimately ill-fated ventures, from air conditioning units to pressure washers.

coleman history
Coleman stove advertisement on the set of “The Enchanted Hill” with Florence Vidor and Jack Holt. 1926, Photo Courtesy of Coleman Image used with permission by copyright holder

By the 1990s, the divisions creating these rather off-brand devices were either sold off or closed, and the company dedicated itself to a focused selection of well-made recreational gear oriented toward the general outdoor enthusiast. They are not out to create an ultra-light stove intended for use during an Everest summit push, nor do they manufacture bivouac tents designed for use during a crossing of the South Pole. Coleman strives to make quality gear that makes the outdoor experience accessible to all.

I spoke to Graham Webb and Dave Purcell, two brand representatives from the company, and asked for their personal feelings about Coleman. “It really has become the outdoor company, so we’re trying to create products that stay true to the brand. We’re not getting into things that are not core heritage for us; it’s sticking with that legacy and staying true to those roots that has always worked for us,” Webb says.

Purcell added that Coleman seeks always to “make an activity accessible to a greater range of people. That’s the remarkable thing about many of these products; you can use them across a range of activities, from camping to backyard use.”

When I head out to climb a mountain, I bring my Snow Peak stove. It’s the size of a pack of cards and weighs about three ounces. When I go on a distance hike, I bring a Mountain Hardware tent. Mine is lightweight and sets up in about four minutes. And so forth.

But if I’m car camping, canoeing, or barbecuing, I bring my Coleman gear. It’s a bit heavier, sure, but none of it has failed me yet. That’s also why I keep a Coleman grill and lantern at the ready in our garage; if the power goes out at home, I’ll still have ready access to the creature comforts of home thanks to gear refined to near perfection over more than 100 years.

Feature image courtesy of Coleman U.S.A./Facebook.

Editors' Recommendations

Topics
Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
All the camping toiletries you need for a weekend (or a week) in the woods
Just because you're in the wild doesn't mean you have to look and smell like it
Man shaving outside

Hiking, camping, and exploring the great outdoors give you a much-needed perspective change on just about all of life's greatest mysteries. It's like pushing the reset button on our human operating systems. When you return to "the real world," you're often completely refreshed and performing optimally across all facets of your life. Among other things, it shows you just how few things you need to exist in blissful harmony with nature.

Out there in the woods, you don't need much aside from the best camping tent, a good sleeping bag, and cooking gear to prep your favorite camping meals. But just because you pack light doesn't mean you have to skimp on the toiletries. It's an essential step that many people forget, but you want a few items to clean yourself up after an all-day hike or fishing adventure.

Read more
The best hiking snacks to fuel your time on the trail
Consider these foods to have with you on your hike
Man eating a hiking snack

Warmer weather is here, and it's finally time to dust off the hiking gear that’s been hibernating in the back of your closet all winter, and make some hiking snacks that will get you ready to hit the trails. From getting fresh air and exercise to enjoying scenic vistas, hiking is one of the best ways to get outdoors and enjoy nature. But, whether you're taking on one of the most physically challenging hikes in the U.S. or embarking on a short and simple day hike, it's important to be prepared with the right equipment -- and that includes the best hiking snacks. 

If you're keeping your hike relatively short, there's no need to reach for the dehydrated meals. What you do want are snacks that won’t spoil, don’t take up a ton of space in your backpack, and help you stay energized and feel good all day long. That means you'll want a mix of carbohydrates and protein, both of which your body needs to perform at its best during the hike and recover properly once you're done.

Read more
I never go to the coast without this jacket from Royal Robbins
This anorak is cozy and built for adventure
The author wearing the wearing the Royal Robbins Merced Anorak on the Oregon coast.

Whenever I head out to coastal Oregon, I never know how to dress. No matter how often I check the forecast, the weather often turns out to be the exact opposite of what I've prepared for once I've made the hour-and-a-half drive out to the Pacific. If I wear a heavier jacket for a grey, foggy hike through one of the area's many state parks, it'll warm up as soon as I arrive, and I'll be drenched in sweat after a mile or two. If I'm hoping for a sunny walk around Cannon Beach, the rain will come through and the wind will whip up, leaving me running back east to chase the sun.

But this spring, I found a solution in a jacket that's built for all of these situations and then some.
Why I love Royal Robbins' Meced Anorak Jacket
This Merced Anorak from Yosemite Valley-inspired outfitter Royal Robbins has quickly become my go-to outdoors jacket. This lightweight, nylon windbreaker keeps me comfortable in just about any weather out in the Pacific Northwest. It's thick enough to be a decent lightweight cover-up in cool temperatures but still thin enough to not get too heated when the sun comes out. The wind resistance this half-zip provides is next-level compared to any other jacket I own — no matter how the wind comes off the waves, I know it'll never chill me to the bone.

Read more