Baggage for a lifetime
Canvas & Leather: A Visit to J.W. Hulme
It’s no secret that it’s boom time for American-made heritage products, and companies as diverse as Stormy Kromer, LL Bean and Randolph Engineering are making the most of it. Even within this resurgence of handmade Americana, there is a further niche: Minnesota-made. Maybe it’s the popularity of the urban lumberjack aesthetic or a just a fondness for Midwestern honesty, but there’s no denying that brands from America’s icebox are hotter than ever.
We’ve highlighted some Minnesota companies before — Red Wing Shoes, Duluth Pack and Faribault Woolen Mills — but we recently got a chance to visit another venerable company nestled right in the gritty urban heart of Minnesota’s capital, St. Paul: J.W. Hulme. We stopped in, hoping to see what this bespoke baggage maker is all about.
The bag has all the subtlety of a steam locomotive and was obviously designed for an era when overland travel demanded toughness from luggage.
You may never have heard of J.W. Hulme, but chances are you’ve seen their nostalgic canvas and leather bags. Founded in 1905 and originally a maker of horse tents (huh?) and awnings, before long they turned to making sturdy, no-nonsense bags for outdoorsmen — shell bags, gun satchels and firewood totes. Hulme sold these bags through the popular (and now defunct) outdoor retailer, Gokey’s, and then for many years under the name of popular hook-and-bullet purveyor, Orvis. But by the 1990s they had struck out on their own. When the economy tanked in 2008, the company was down to four employees in its 50-year factory. Five years later finds 40 people designing and building over 350 different products for the old faithful outdoorsy base as well as well-heeled shoppers at Barney’s New York. Clearly, times are good for a century-old brand that has weathered its share of ups and down.
Red Wing boots, Duluth Pack, J.W. Hulme. Why the interest in gear made in Minnesota these days? I may be biased, but I’d like to think it’s due to a combination of rugged craftsmanship and an aura of adventure bred in a state where people fish through holes in the ice for half the year and swat sparrow-sized mosquitoes the other half. Ever since the first Voyageurs were portaging canoes across these 10,000 lakes, Minnesotans have loved adventures and have made the gear needed for them. Minnesota-made gear is honest. It does the job without pretense. This isn’t lumberjack chic. This is lumberjack.
Of course, these technology totes are made with the same quality leather and to the same standards as Hulme’s gun cases and duffles, even if you won’t be handing them down to your heirs. Still, you could if you wanted.
Hulme’s bags are nothing short of sumptuous, their supple leather begging to be stroked and admired. Their giant Classic Duffle, modestly, if inappropriately, named a “medium”, is rich in features: a foldover dust flap that secures with three sturdy brass buckles, a double-thick stress point, a padded shoulder strap and a cavernous main compartment full of interior-zipped pockets. The bag has all the subtlety of a steam locomotive and was obviously designed for an era when overland travel demanded toughness from luggage. All of J.W. Hulme’s bags use American-tanned leathers and canvas and are made in the small factory by the capable hands of the workers. Each employee works to stamp out the leather, cut the fabrics, glue, stitch and rivet pieces and then hand-buff a bag to its final glory.
While the majority of the J.W. Hulme’s bags are made to be carried on their thick leather shoulder straps, even the few that have rolling wheels and handles have such character that those who pull their Rolling Pullman through the world’s anonymous airports are often stopped and questioned about them. Needless to say, their contrasting reinforced leather corners, chunky Riri zippers and overall panache are not typically seen in today’s bland black nylon roller bags.
Lest we think that all of Hulme’s products are for Luddites hearkening for stagecoach days, we were shown the prototype of their new iPhone 5 case that should be on the market soon; plans were being made for an iPad Mini sleeve on the very day Apple announced its release. Of course, these technology totes are made with the same quality leather and to the same standards as Hulme’s gun cases and duffles, even if you won’t be handing them down to your heirs. Still, you could if you wanted. All J.W. Hulme products are guaranteed for life, and built with that in mind. The company occasionally receives old products to be fixed — a strap wears out, a buckle breaks — but more often than not, a customer just wants his grandfather’s old briefcase spruced up for another 20 years of doing the 9 to 5 schlep.
Make no mistake: J.W. Hulme bags are not cheap. North of a thousand dollars for a leather duffle is not a purchase most of us would take lightly. But consider that, barring it falling off the back of a yak into a Himalayan ravine, you will never have to buy another travel bag in your life. This is not a bag you buy to satisfy a spur-of-the-moment trend craving. It’s a backlash against all that is cheap and disposable and careless and untrustworthy. This is a bag you buy for the same reason you buy a fine mechanical watch or a hand-built steel bicycle — an appreciation for something that was made with care that will serve you well in all of life’s adventures and never let you down. Not to mention it is drop dead gorgeous. When you think of Hulme products that way, they suddenly make perfect sense.