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A Long and Storied History | Duluth Pack

Anyone familiar with the Duluth Pack name likely knows that our greatest claim to fame is our long and storied history, spanning nearly a century and a half. The Duluth Pack lineage has seen America through hasty and tumultuous change. Our founder Camille Poirier’s iconic patent design – filed in 1882 and the basis for many of our packs still to this day—is older than the bicycle (1885), the modern automobile (1886), powered air flight (1903), women’s suffrage (1920), broadcast television (1926), and sliced bread (1928). The staying power of an organization as modest as ours is certainly remarkable. After all, Poirier made some meager improvements to a backpack. Many manufacturers with antiquity like ours are makers of products that people require, or that have changed the course of human development. General Mills, our senior by only 26 years, has peddled its food products through 34 economic depressions. The Benz & Cie. Company, the predecessor to the luxury auto manufacturer Mercedes Benz, invented the passenger motor vehicle four years after our founding, permanently and fundamentally changing the way people move. Those are some big sluggers to call our contemporaries, and it’s not hard to see why they might still be around. In the shadow of those giants, Duluth Pack’s longevity could easily be brought into question. How could it be that such a minute business, located for its entire history at the same facility, in the same little city, selling backpacks, could cobble its way through some of the most turbulent economic periods of human history? Let’s speculate wildly.

Tradition is important. We have plenty of our own, and our customers tend to make us a part of theirs. We have always adhered to an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra that’s resonated with generations of users. After all, the #3 Original Duluth Pack you’re carrying is not so different than the Monarch Brand #3 that your grandparents might’ve bought back in ’45, and that one not so different than the Poirier Pack Sack A1 that started it all back in ’82 (1882 that is). Our penchant for doing things the way they’ve always been done has been a driving force of our organization throughout all permeations of its existence. Born from that approach is a highly sought-after sense of timelessness that’s often imitated but rarely authentic. Many of our designs have transcended generations of shifting stylistic and functional preferences. When the market demanded nylon, Duluth Pack politely declined-- our canvas is just fine, thank you. When fancy clips and closures were all the rage, we stayed true to our iconic roller buckles. A vote for Duluth Pack is a quiet protest of consumerism and its demand for the hottest and newest trends. It’s a vote of confidence in tradition.

The duality between honoring tradition and pursuing innovation is a delicate balance that’s difficult to maintain. Duluth Pack was born in the Northwoods from a sort of necessity: the lakes and rivers that punctuated the rugged terrain were a navigable highway, and those who traversed them needed a reliable means of hauling their heavy and cumbersome gear. Enter: the Poirier Pack Sack. Its slick silhouette, adjustable flap, and multiple carry options provided voyagers with a comfortable and versatile means of carrying their crucial cargo, establishing us as the benchmark choice of canoeists for generations to come. It wasn’t long before the mode of transportation shifted and Minnesotans traded their canoes for Model Ts, and Duluth Pack introduced the Auto-Pack, designed to ride on the sideboards of some of the earliest production vehicles. Duluth Packs were along for the ride on some of the first cross-country road trips. With the advent of affordable jet travel, Duluth Pack entered the luggage game with great success, adding globetrotting travelers to our repertoire of customers who swore by a Duluth Pack’s indispensability. Following WWII and the lode of leisure time the American family enjoyed thereafter, we added hunting and shooting sports products to our catalog of outdoor gear to meet the sportsman’s increasing demand for infallible equipment. Today, a Duluth Pack is as at home on Park Avenue on the shoulder of an urban fashionista as it is in a State Park on the back of a dedicated bushcrafter. We’re committed to adapting to our customer's dynamically changing tastes, and giving them new products they ask for, built the “old” way they expect.

When globalism was in its infant stages and American companies began wholesaling their production to more affordable foreign facilities, Duluth Pack saw fit to roll the dice and keep our manufacturing business right where it’s always been: 1610 West Superior Street. It’s our firm belief that no one makes things better than the American worker does. While the international workforce becomes more skilled, less expensive, and increasingly attractive to American companies, Duluth Packs will always be made where their name suggests.

This passionate stance comes at an increasing price. Our longtime customers might note that once modestly-priced bags are now comparatively expensive. This steady increase in our retail price has moved laterally to the cost of manufacturing in the US. What’s more, our dedication to the American worker does not start and stop on our production line. We feel that it’s not enough to have your products simply “assembled” in the USA. Rather, we source as many of our raw materials as possible in the United States as well, from ranchers in North Dakota, to tanners in Chicago, to canvas dyers in New Jersey. A Duluth Pack is the result of hundreds of American workers from dozens of similarly minded companies across the country proving that the United States is still the place to make products that will last a lifetime. That commitment may not be a selling point for everybody, but for a handful of exacting consumers who want their hard-earned dollars to stay at home, it’s a deal-breaker.

Who is to be sure why a backpack company that’s older than penicillin is still alive and kicking over 137 years later when so many of our peers have crumbled beneath the test of time? Many companies have celebrated a centennial. There’s even more who fancy themselves on the cutting edge of innovation. Though they’re a dying breed, there’s plenty of companies whose wares are made by American hands. Duluth Pack is in good company across all of our defining characteristics, and yet we remain a standout in our industry: the grandfather of all our successors. The key to our longevity may escape us today, but perhaps the answer lies in the occasional Poirier Pack that makes an appearance in the repair department at the same factory it was manufactured in 100 years ago.

Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company and another of our contemporaries, once said it best:

“Give them quality. That’s the best kind of advertising.”


By Trevor W.