Utah State Creates Outdoor Gear Ephemera Archive

When people get catalogs from Patagonia or REI in the mail, most throw them out or recycle them. But Utah State University’s (USU) Special Collections wants to collect these catalogs, magazines, and other ephemera to preserve the history of outdoor gear.

Metropolitan Camp Goods catalog with black and white illustration of man sitting in front of tent, woman standing under tent flap in front of table
Metropolitan Camp Goods Company, 1928,” USU Digital Exhibits

When people get catalogs from Patagonia or REI in the mail, most throw them out or recycle them. But Utah State University’s (USU) Special Collections wants to collect these catalogs, magazines, and other ephemera to preserve the history of outdoor gear.

“There is a great opportunity to document the history of the outdoor industry,” said Clint Pumphrey, manuscript curator at USU’s Special Collections and Archives. The outdoor sports industry took off in the 1950s and ’60s, after hiking and climbing activities split off from fishing and hunting in catalogs and magazines. Now as its original leaders begin to retire the industry as a whole is starting to think about its legacy. Print catalogs and magazines are ephemeral and tend to be thrown away, while fewer companies are printing them in the first place, Pumphrey explained. Now is the time to collect them before they disappear forever.

The archive grew out of a partnership between USU's Special Collections and Archives and Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD), a degree program at USU that teaches students how to create outdoor products. It started when Professor Sean Michael, who teaches a class on the history of the outdoor industry, asked Special Collections to have relevant materials on hand for student use in 2018. Pumphrey reached out to Chase Anderson, program coordinator at OPDD, because this presented an opportunity to create a resource for students and the industry as a whole. Anderson and Pumphrey did research and no one was quite doing what they were doing.

From there, Anderson began reaching out to industry partners as well as collectors and individuals to help build the collection. The first donation was from an outdoor retailer who had amassed a collection of more than 1,000 catalogs and magazines that he didn’t know what to do with. Those materials kickstarted the entire archive, said Anderson.

Since that first acquisition, the collection has been growing. Pumphrey estimates that the archive now has 3,000 catalogs from 400 companies. It is also collecting serials, which can be harder to come by; the archive might have the only complete set of SNEWS, aka Specialty News, a trade publication for the outdoor industry that recently rebranded to Outside Business Journal, Pumphrey said. He estimates that the archive holds between 4,000 and 5,000 magazines with 75 titles.

The collection isn’t limited to magazines and catalogs, however. It is also looking for company newsletters, both internal and external. Even more rare are the collections of primary documents from collectors or retired individuals in the business, which include manuscripts, photographs, and even sketchbooks by equipment designers.

Recreational Equipment Inc. catalog showing man kneeling in snow lifting up corner of snow to reveal grass underneath and text reading
Recreational Equipment, Inc., Spring 1980,” USU Digital Exhibits

There are many outdoor sports and activities, so it can be hard to draw the line on what to collect, Pumphrey said. Right now the focus is on ephemera relating to backpacking, climbing, and hiking. There are some materials related to skiing and trail running, and archivists may consider expanding into other outdoor sports and activities. However, the collection is focused on two-dimensional objects, unless they are related to the existing manuscript collection. Pumphrey noted that three-dimensional artifacts and gear require more space and specialized care.

The oldest item in the collection is the 1900 David T. Abercrombie catalog, where the type-only cover reads, “Articles for Sportsman and Travelers. David T. Abercrombie & Co.” Abercrombie would later go on to found Abercrombie and Fitch, which started as the biggest outdoor outfitter for hunting, fishing, and camping in the first half of the 20th century. That original catalog is a stark contrast to the heavily illustrated Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs and images of today. The most recent pieces include catalogs that Pumphrey has gotten in the mail.

The archive recently acquired materials from the North Face including decades old financial statements, photographs from the North Face clothing company’s 1990 Trans-Antarctica Expedition, and sketchbooks from the company’s designers. One such sketchbook is from tent designer Bob Gillis. It contains doodles and pasted photos from other magazines. “You can tell he's just trying to work through design problems and really figure out the best way to build this geodesic tent that he's working on,”' Anderson noted.

While COVID-19 has limited the collection’s in-person use, faculty have worked with Pumphrey to schedule the collection for class assignments, including classes on the history of outdoor industry and on color theory.

The industry has also made use of the collection in spite of travel restrictions, Anderson reported, particularly through the Instagram account @outdoorrecarchive. Since 2019, Anderson has been posting scans of different catalog covers every day. “We can give people a glimpse into the catalogs, or at least the covers, to appreciate the beauty of each,” Anderson explained. It’s a way to reach new audiences; currently @outdoorrecarchive has over 10,000 followers.

Anderson reaches out to each follower individually with a link to a special digital exhibition of the covers. People have contacted Pumphrey for more information; he scans the insides of catalogs and more for those who have questions. The archive has been featured on the OPPD podcast and a virtual panel hosted by USU as part of its History of Gear series.

With COVID restrictions lifting, Anderson and Pumphrey are seeing requests for companies to come and use the collection in person to possibly influence the direction of a new product line or marketing campaign.

array of three 1984 Patagonia catalogs
Array of 1984 Patagonia catalogs
Photo by McKay Jensen / USU

Pumphrey is pleasantly surprised that people are interested in the collection, he noted, adding that graphic designers are also inspired by vintage advertising and design. “That's an archivist’s dream, to have people from all over find value in the collection for a lot of different reasons,” he said. Pumphrey and Anderson are also working to invite historians, researchers, and other academics to further engage with the archive.

It’s also been a great lesson in collaboration between archives and another university department. The two have each been able to leverage their skill sets to make the collection what it is today. Pumphrey works on archiving and cataloging while Anderson works on reaching out industry partners, collectors, and promoting the work via social media.

“We're interested in building our collection and making it as robust as possible, but part of our mission too is just to bring attention to the need to preserve the legacy of the outdoor industry,” said Pumphrey. “We also want companies to think about their legacy and how they're going to preserve that, whether that’s hiring a dedicated archivist, or maybe assigning someone part-time to collect and organize things.”

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