At some point in time, we went from being mere outdoor recreationalists to full blown obsessives. From hiking to rock climbing, snowboarding to mountain biking, we picked up every activity our regional geography could support. Before long, our fixation for gear began to rival the activities themselves. And though our attention remains firmly on finding the next great Gore-Tex parka and lightweight backpack, our appreciation for hard and soft goods alike extends well beyond current model years. Thanks to the archival magic of the Internet, the golden era of outdoor recreation remains at our fingertips.
Beyond old Tumblr accounts, aging Flicker albums, random Pinterest boards, and of course, the never ending IG Stories of Organic Lab dot Zip, exists the little known but truly unmatched Outdoor Recreation Archive, a special collection housed within the Utah State University library.
The unique treasure trove consists of over 2,700 physical catalogs and magazines, with the earliest catalogs dating back to 1905–an early catalog from once legendary outfitter Abercrombie & Fitch, which was founded in 1892. If you're wondering, we can safely confirm no moose embroidered polo shirts or six pack abs appear in those pages, for better or worse.
Those unfamiliar with USU might wonder why its library has curated such a collection. And the answer lies in the university's 4-year course in Outdoor Product Design & Development. This collection is undoubtedly a valuable resource for the students enrolled in the program—after all, learning the outdoor industry’s past is key to designing its future.
Though the collection spans many decades, it was only started in 2018. A professor at USU who teaches a History of Outdoor Product Industry class approached the library’s Special Collections department with the idea of starting the collection. From there, the university’s Manuscript Curator, Clint Pumphrey, was connected with Chase Anderson in the school's Marketing & PR department, and the two have worked together since to personally identify potential collection donors, purchase catalogs from book dealers and other retailers, and practice various forms of cataloging that’s required to keep track of it all.
The catalogs we’re most excited about are from outdoor recreation’s golden era, beginning in the mid-century and carrying through the 70’s and even the 80’s. During this time brands sprung up from considerably small operations and brought their designs to market through the very mail order catalogs now housed in USU's collection. Frostline, Sierra Designs, Dana Designs, Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. They’re all here among so many more.
Though the impressive collection isn’t yet fully digitized (a serious undertaking but long-term goal requiring hours of labor and brands' consent) the online exhibition offers a nice preview, and the Instagram account for the collection (@outdoorrecarchive) is definitely worth a follow, too. Updated frequently with a variety of choice scans, this IG is one you won't feel guilty about digging deep into.
Read on for a quick Q&A with the collection’s curator, Clint Pumphrey, about some of his favorite catalogs and outdoor gear pieces.
What are your own favorite catalogs out of the collection?
I like the catalogs that push the envelope on what a “catalog” can be. One of my favorites is from The North Face. It’s a little square box, about the size of a deck of cards, marketed as a “ski starter set” that included a gift certificate and folded pages with images, descriptions, and prices of gear—similar to a catalog but in a very different format.
What catalogs are at the top of the 'must have' list to add to the collection?
We have a lot of the classics, like the 1972 Chouinard catalog featuring the watercolor depiction of a pinnacle on a tan background. I would like to fill out our L.L. Bean (pre-1980) and Abercrombie and Fitch (pre-1977) collections, particularly those from the first half of the twentieth century, as those were two of the biggest outdoor brands around in that early period. From the standpoint of our Instagram followers, there’s quite a bit of interest in The North Face catalogs, so filling out that section will be important, too. Other than that, I really enjoy finding catalogs from short-lived, little-known brands that would otherwise likely be lost to history.
Is there one grail piece from any catalog that you wish you could get your hands on?
I think there are some curious pieces of gear that would be interesting to see just for the novelty. One that comes to mind is the “Night Rider” from Marmot’s 1978 catalog--a fully reflective jacket and pants that promised increased visibility for cycling and jogging. I also remember seeing a deer carrier in an old L.L. Bean catalog that was basically a glorified wooden wheelbarrow you could use to haul your catch out of the woods. People were tough back then!
As the world begins to return to some sort of "normal" state, USU plans soon to allow visitors to schedule viewings of the collection in person. There are also some ideas going about a competitive fellowship for scholars and designers with interest in researching the collection.
In the meantime, if you’re as excited about this collection and as big of gear geeks as us, you’ll also likely enjoy USU’s Highlander Podcast. Tune in to hear about topics like how Bob Gore accidentally created Gore-Tex or the origins of The North Face’s logo. It’s the perfect podcast to listen to while scouring eBay for vintage teardrop backpacks whose waterproof linings may or may not be deteriorating and come with an interesting funk.