No escape to nature is complete without a trip to the store. Or so believe American outdoor enthusiasts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who number in the tens of millions each year. Since the late nineteenth century, the outdoor industry has played a central role in mediating Americans’ back to nature experiences. Drawing on the marketing of outdoor outfitters, consumers have filled their packs with camping stoves, sleeping bags, and other equipment in an effort to stay warm, dry, and—most importantly—have an authentic experience out in nature. In 2018, Americans spent more than $887 billion in the outdoor recreation economy, topping even consumer spending on pharmaceuticals. The ubiquitous influence on the outdoor industry on American life in the last 150 years is visible in day-to-day life, not just in high-level economic terms. One hundred years ago, wearing sports clothes to an office job would have been unthinkable. But outdoor companies revolutionized American dress in the twentieth century, and now many Americans likely own fleeces from Patagonia and The North Face that will never summit a mountain.
Buckskin to Gore-Tex asks why Americans go shopping on their way to the wilderness. In the late-nineteenth century, Americans travelers saw their excursions to the mountains emblems of antimodern, or primitive experience, even as they brought modern equipment from outfitters like Abercrombie and Fitch with them from the city. The symbolic significance of nature defined in opposition to modernity remained for the next 150 years. Nonetheless, outdoor companies, from L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer to Eastern Mountain Sports and Patagonia, have played a central role in shaping both American travelers’ material experiences and their ideas about the nature they were getting back to. The project traces the history of the outdoor industry from the Civil War to the present-–or, from buckskin to Gore-Tex.
Rachel Gross (PhD, History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2017) is a Postdoctoral Teaching, Research, and Mentoring Fellow at the Davidson Honors College of the University of Montana, where she teaches U.S. environmental, consumer culture, and public history. In 2019 she will be a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and in 2020 she will be Assistant Professor of History at the University of Colorado Denver. Her dissertation, “From Buckskin to Gore-Tex: Consumption as a Path to Mastery in Twentieth Century American Wilderness Recreation,” won the 2018 Herman E. Krooss Prize for Best Dissertation in Business History from the Business History Conference.