Few brands are as synonymous with the American outdoors as L.L.Bean. With over a century in the business, L.L.Bean has pioneered the world of outdoor gear with a host of innovations that have changed the market as we know it today. Since starting with a pair of souped-up galoshes in the early twentieth century, L.L.Bean has become an iconic American brand with over 55 stores across The United States.
But how did Mr. Leon Leonwood Bean become the main man in Maine? We’re taking a moment to appreciate one of America’s most famed businesspersons and his iconic outdoor brand.
L.L.Bean History & Philosophy
L.L.Bean was founded in Freeport, Maine by its namesake Leon Leonwood “L.L.” Bean in 1912. Born in 1872, Bean was a keen hunter and fisherman who left school after the eighth grade. Bean struggled to settle into working life, with his real passions laying in the marshy woodlands of Maine where he would hunt for moose, dear, and duck.
But these hunting grounds posed a persistent problem to Bean. They were so marshy that he would return home with soaking wet feet that would later become sore. In 1912, Bean finally took ownership of this issue and approached a local cobbler, tasking him to create a boot that would keep his feet dry whilst out on the hunt. The result? The Maine Hunting Shoe.
Bean’s waterproof shoe concept was to attach a leather ankle support to rubber-soled galoshes. After receiving his first pair back from the cobbler and wearing them on a successful hunting trip, Bean was so impressed with his creation that he christened his creation ‘The Maine Hunting Shoe’ and ordered 100 pairs to be made, ready to be sold to fellow hunters.
Bean’s first business venture is seen to this day as a stroke of marketing genius. With 100 pairs of Maine Hunting shoes at the ready, Bean managed to obtain a list of all the Maine hunting license holders and mailed them a three-page flyer that featured the following statement:
Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of heavy hunting boots.
The flyer was a success, and Bean sold out of his boots shortly after mailing it. This was a bold move for a brand new businessman, but it soon backfired. Out of the 100 pairs sold, 90 pairs of Hunting Shoes were returned to Bean with major faults. The leather and rubber components had separated, rendering the shoes useless and leaving customers wanting their money back. This set back would usually completely devastate such a new business, but Bean was determined. He refunded everyone in full and liaised with the United States Rubber Company, who sold him a new and upgraded rubber sole that would be more suitable for constructing the Main Hunting Shoe.
Bean reproduced his Hunting Shoes with the improved rubber sole and mailed out pairs to all 90 dissatisfied customers, free of charge. This second batched proved successful, and before long, Bean was receiving more requests for his new and improved Hunting Shoe. When he didn’t receive a reply from the recipients of his flyer, it has been claimed that Bean would personally write a follow-up letter to the recipient. A gentleman named F.N. Sawyer from Wakefield, Massachusetts received a note typed on the blank reverse side of the hunting-shoe flyer that read:
Dear Sir, recently I sent you a circular of my Maine Hunting Shoe. As I have not received your order I take the liberty of again calling your attention to my shoe. I am receiving so many compliments from all over the states that I am sure the shoe would please you and am willing to send you a pair on approval.
The Maine Hunting Shoe, now known simply as ‘The Bean Boot’, provided a solid foundation for Bean to build his brand. He began to expand his line of products and would advertise his new wares in mail-order catalogs he would include when shipping out his boots.
Bean’s fortunes were supercharged by the expansion of the U.S. Postal Service. With his business built around mail orders, Bean built a factory and shipment hub over the Freeport post office to speed up his operations. In 1924, L.L.Bean introduced the Maine Duck Coat to his growing roster of outdoor gear. Now known as the ‘Field Coat’, this piece became an iconic piece of sportswear that matched perfectly with the increasingly popular Bean Boots.
By 1927, the L.L.Bean roster featured a host of non-shoe items, including the now-famous Chamois shirt, moccasins, pocket knives, and even fishing and camping gear. With each new product added, Bean’s mail order circular catalogs grew larger and larger until they were over fifty pages of sportswear, outdoor gear, and homewares.
L.L.Bean included his own witty product descriptions which made customers feel like they were sending a mail order slip back to Bean himself. A quote from his 1927 catalog reads “It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish, we have done that experimenting for you.”
Bean’s business continued to grow in the coming years, and his personable approach to business was bolstered by his infamous returns policy. To instill the deepest of trust in his customers, Bean offered lifetime returns on all of his products if a customer became dissatisfied. Customers did not even need proof of purchase. This ridiculously flexible returns policy became legendary in the States. Everyone knew L.L.Bean was a brand you could trust.
Above all, we wish to avoid having a dissatisfied customer. We consider our customers a part of our organization, and we want them to feel free to make any criticism they see fit in regard to our merchandise or service. Sell practical, tested merchandise at reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings — and they will always come back.
L.L.Bean sales hit $1 million for the first time in 1937 and continued to grow year on year. L.L.Bean supplied boots known as ‘shoepacs’ to the U.S. military during the Second World War. These boots were designed for cold-weather and were reminiscent of the Bean Boot.
After easily weathering the Great Depression and WWII, it was the ’60s that would finally slow the company down. Retail boomed in the post-war generation and Bean’s new competitors were putting out aggressive advertising campaigns and expanding at alarming rates. Pushing 90 years old, Bean was still head of his company and the retail climate was changing rapidly, leaving the L.L.Bean brand in danger of falling behind.
The unprecedented brand loyalty that L.L.Bean had achieved over the last half-a-century allowed the brand pushed through these difficult times, but Bean himself passed away in 1967 at the age of 94. The company received over 45,000 letters of condolence and tributes poured in across the country.
Leon Gorman, the companies treasurer whom Bean had hired himself, took the reins and increased the companies advertising budget in a bid to catch up with the times. Gorman updated and streamlined commercial operations and added more retail spaces was mindful to hold on to fundamental aspects of the L.L.Bean identity. Catalogs stayed in circulation, the archetypal Bean products remained in production, and the company’s Freeport outlet remained open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a tradition instilled by Bean himself in 1951.
Gorman continued to successfully steer L.L.Bean through the decades to come. The 80s saw further revamps to the brand and its assets. The flagship Freeport store benefited from a $3.5 million dollar renovation, which doubled its size, added granite paving, themed outdoor displays, and even a trout pond. Gorman oversaw the introduction of the ‘Sunrise over Katadhin’ logo which is featured on many of the brands’ products, products which featured in brands now 120-page catalogs.
L.L.Bean is still headquartered in Freeport, Maine. Leon Gorman stepped down to a chairman position in 2001, and the company is currently headed by his son, Shawn Gorman. The company’s flagship store in Freeport remains open for business 24 hours a day, 364 days a year—closing only on February 5th to honor the passing of L.L.Bean himself—and currently has 55 stores across the United States and a website that offers global shipping on its full product range.
In addition to the full range of apparel, the Bean store offers a full range of outdoor equipment and accessories for activities such as fishing, hunting, cycling, and water sports. The brand also offers gym gear, home decor and furnishings, luggage, and dog supplies.
Many product lines have been modernized, but the core DNA of the L.L.Bean brand remains and the company reinforces this with their tagline, “The outside is in everything we make”. To honor the blueprint laid out by Bean himself over 100 years ago, L.L.Bean introduced a ‘signature collection’ in 2009. This collection contains reissues of the original L.L.Bean products like the Field Coat and Chamois Shirt and remains in production today.
But as of this year, the legendary L.L.Bean lifetime guarantee returns policy has ceased to be. The company stated:
Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.
Nevertheless, the company remains committed to high-quality goods that will stand the test of time, and the updated returns policy is still relatively generous compared to most retailers, allowing customers one year to return their items.
It’s safe to say that L.L.Bean never broke into pop-culture like other heritage brands such as Converse or Doctor Marten’s, but the ironclad legacy instilled by Leon Leonwood Bean has cemented L.L.Bean into rural American culture. If anything, Bean never set out to conquer the world, he just wanted to do the simple things well, keep his customers satisfied, a promote a love of the outdoors. And you could say he achieved that, and then some.
Iconic L.L.Bean Products
The boot that started it all is still in production to this day and remains an integral part of the L.L.Bean collection. Still crafted in Maine using top-quality materials and construction techniques, the bean boot features rubber bottoms and a full grain leather shaft with lace closure. The design of the Bean Boot has barely changed since 1912 and they’re still guaranteed to keep your feet dry. A true outdoor classic.
Available for $135 at L.L.Bean.
Original Field Coat
Originally introduced in 1924, the Field Coat was designed to match the Bean Boot in a functional-yet-charming hunting ensemble. Today, the Field Coat is built from two-ply 10 oz. cotton canvas with corduroy trimmings on the collar and cuffs. Constructed with five generous pockets, underarm gussets, reinforced shoulders, and removable woolen liner, the Field Coat is a garment ready for all types of action.
Available for $139 from L.L.Bean.
Another ubiquitous piece designed by L.L.Bean himself, the Chamois shirt has stood the test of time as a rugged classic. Today, the Chamois Shirt is made from exceptionally soft 5oz. Portuguese cotton, woven into a relaxed-fit shirt with dual chest pockets and tonal button closure.
Available for $55 from L.L.Bean.
Boat and Tote
Originally named ‘the Ice Bag’, this heavy-duty canvas tote was introduced by L.L.Bean in 1944 and initially used to carry heavy ice blocks. Now named the Boat & Tote, this bag is handcrafted in Maine from 24 oz. cotton canvas with a double-layer base for extra durability. Each bag is tested to hold 500 pounds in weight and comes with a zipped pocket to secure your daily carry.
Available for $29.95 from L.L.Bean.