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Gear Talk, The Lowdown

The Voyageur, the Canoe, and the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket

November 4, 2011
Hudson's Bay Point Blanket

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) is the oldest commercial corporation in North America and one of the oldest in the world. Begun under English royal charter in 1670, the Hudson Bay Company made its name and reputation as a fur trader, but today owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada.

The founding of the Hudson Bay Company coincided with the era of the voyageur and the fur trade in North America. These voyageurs were using large canoes to transport 90 pound bales of fur pelts over the trade routes of the Great Lakes and as far west as modern day Manitoba. The typical interior river canoe was 25 feet long, paddled by five or six men, and carried 25 to 30 of the heavy fur bales.

In the 1700’s European demand for fur grew, as did the number of voyageurs and the success of the Hudson Bay Company. The HBC held a near monopoly on the fur trade and employed hundreds of voyageurs that were once independent contractors. At the peak the HBC was trading in an area greater than 3,000,000 square miles, and had 1,500 contract employees.

The Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket was born in the 18th century as a currency of exchange with First Nation Tribes. The blankets were traded to Native Americans for beaver pelts, buffalo robes, and other goods. The wool blankets were coveted because they were easier to sew than bison hides and retained their ability to hold heat even when wet.

The “points” or small lines stitched into the side of the blanket have led to a common misconception. Many believe that these points denote the number of beaver pelts it would take to trade for a Hudson’s Bay blanket. In truth, these points were sewn into the fabric to denote size of the blanket. On display a merchant would immediately know the size of the blanket without having to unfold it for the customer.

The four colored stripes of the Hudson’s Bay blanket have become a North American icon. Today the blankets are made in England by John Atkinson, with Woolrich Inc. of Pennsylvania holding the official license to import them into the United States. When you see that familiar tag with the red, green, yellow, and indigo stripes you know you are looking at a long and storied history.