A Man with Poor Eyesight but Remarkable Vision.
The Saturday Evening Post said, "Except for Thomas A. Edison, Mr. Coleman may be responsible for the creation of more bright light than any other man."
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 lamp 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 lamps had mantles, not wicks, and were fueled by gasoline under pressure instead of coal oil. Their 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 lamps 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 lamps 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.
Life on the farm - for anyone who worked outside - would never be the same.
Coleman® was able to purchase the inventory and patents for the Efficient Lamp in 1901. After years of servicing the lamps, 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 distributed. By the close of the decade, the company was a bona fide manufacturing concern. It had an organized sales force, a research and development department, and factory output had increased from 120 lamps in 1909 to 50,000 by the year 1920.
Coleman® Hits the Road.
With the advent of the automobile, America gets travel fever. And Coleman goes along for the ride.
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. Vacationers made camp roadside.
The fold-up camp 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® would overtake its competitors and dominate the market.
A Little Industrial Complex on the Prairie.
By the 1930s, Coleman had the largest number of working lathes west of the Mississippi. And they were humming.
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
Deemed one of the most important non combat pieces of equipment to come out of WWII, here's the story of a real hero: the Coleman® GI Pocket Stove.
Coleman'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 Coleman® GI Pocket 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.
Blowing soap bubbles inspired Coleman engineers to develop an American family staple: the plastic cooler.
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® moved with it.
The lantern and the camp 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.
By the time the '80s drew to a close, the little lantern company was turning out 15 million products a year for in-love-with-the-outdoors Americans.
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 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.
Never a Dull Moment on our Drawing Board.
What's new, now and later...
The Coleman Company has been on a roll for more than 100 years. The present decade is no exception.
Our current catalogue is full of recently introduced products that make spending time outside a pleasure. There are products just for kids, and those specifically designed for women. A brand-new generation of lanterns and stoves that run on Coleman's innovative Powermax® fuel system. Coolers with wheels and thermoelectric coolers. Dual Fuel applicances. Compact and Portable, Coleman is with you all the way.
"Don't let life put you back on your heels. Lean into it" - Sheldon Coleman Sr.
That mantra still guides the Coleman Company. We continue to lean into the future. Ours is a company with an uncanny ability to adapt to change. A company with an intimate understanding of the consumer. A commitment to research and development that breathes vitality into every aspect of the business. A company that sets industry standards.
We are defined by our heritage. And excited about our future.