Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket: A Brief History

Source, Pinterest.

By JENN WEBSTER

Recently I had the opportunity to bring my mother a gift. I was really struggling with the perfect offering but when I came across a Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket, I knew my search had ended. Was there anything more Canadian? Growing up, I was always familiar with the multi-stripe pattern of this iconic blanket. One of my most treasured possessions now is a baby picture of my husband crawling around on one. However, I came to realize that after giving the newly acquired gift to my mother, I didn’t understand much of the blanket’s history.

It was time to look further into the iconic status of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. First commissioned by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1800, the multi-stripe design lives on as a testament to our shared Canadian heritage. Throughout the 18th century, wool blankets were among the most popular trade items in the Canadian fur trade, accounting for more than 60% of all goods exchanged by 1700. Although blankets had been a trade good offered for some time, it was not until 1779 that the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket came to life.

French fur-trader Germain Maugenest is thought to have advised the HBC to introduce point blankets. As part of his service of employment to HBC, he offered several suggestions for improving the growing inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. One of his suggestions was that the company should regularly stock and trade “pointed” blankets.

Points were identified by the indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A full point measured 4–5.5 inches (10–14 centimetres); a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1-point blankets was: 2 feet, 8 inches (81 centimetres) wide by 8 feet (2.4 metres) in length; with a weight of 3 pounds, 1 ounce (1.4 kilograms) each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.

They allowed a blanket’s size to be easily determined even when folded – (Oh, how I wish all blankets and sheets came marked like this! Lord knows a system such as that found on Point Blankets would serve my current linen closet well…!) The point system was invented by French weavers in the mid-1700s since then, as now, blankets were shrunk as part of the manufacturing process. The word point derives from the French empointer, meaning “to make threaded stitches on cloth.”

The number of points on a blanket represents the overall finished size of the blanket – not its value in terms of beaver pelts, as is often thought.

 Although some sources suggest there is some meaning to the stripe colours or order, the truth is that nothing intentional was meant by the design. The four traditional colours of green, red, yellow, and indigo were simply colours that were popular and easily produced using good colourfast dyes at the time (around 1800). They are sometimes referred to as Queen Anne’s colours, since they first became popular during her reign (1702–1714).

 

The 1973 Calgary Stamped Royalty. Suzanne Randle, Joan Horne and Bettie Knight

Interestingly enough, HBC did not roll out its first commercially available Point Blanket coat until 1922, although fur traders, voyageurs and Indigenous peoples had already been making them into coats for almost 200 years by then. These too, come with a long, interesting history.

The Coyote Fur throw by Caroline Furs.

What I love most about the HBC Point Blankets are their rich history and the fact that back in the early days of fur trading, they were well suited for cold Canadian winters. I had a Grandfather who tried to make an early living out of the trapping of beaver pelts. I can almost picture him traveling by dogsled with his young wife (my Grandmother) draped in a Point Blanket, deep into the wilderness of Canada.

Today, the blankets still hold their iconic status and warmth and as such, are used in a multitude of ways for home decor or fashion.

As seen in Vogue Australia. Source: Pinterest.

With their pops of color, these blankets make Canadiana statements wherever you look. From couch throws, to mugs, to the patterns on towels at a cottage retreat – the HBC Point Blanket pattern has inspired many a home. The pattern has also made appearances on special edition Canadian Olympic blankets, snowboards, Barbies, and milestone anniversary Canadian gifts.

Photo Credit: Ryan Rowell of Rowell Photo

Often duplicated, all genuine HBC Point Blankets come with authenticity labels. This has been done since 1890, as point blankets of similar quality were being sold by HBC competitors. In April 2017 HBC updated the label, rotating it from portrait to landscape, making it is easy to have English and French on either side of the crest. It was also enhanced with red on the flag. To celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017, HBC added an additional label which was a picture of voyageurs in a canoe, with CANADA on the top, to the blanket.

With such an elaborate history dating back to the early days of fur traders and settlers in Canada, I believe we’ll start to see more of the HBC Point Blanket influence in western lifestyle culture too, as our younger generations begin to understand its importance to our early beginnings. To me, it’s a symbol of early pioneering. A good that was crafted into a need and helped forge early Canada. It goes hand in hand with a wood-burning stove and a love of the past. What’s more western than that?

True Love (& Grit)

I'm dedicating this Valentine's Day post to the trick riders and rodeo girls of the late 1800's and early 1900's. For these women displayed incredible grit and love for their horses, and the early rodeo lifestyle, and their determination and courage has always been an inspiration to me.

Gals like Bea, pictured above, circa 1925, performing a crouch stand from her gorgeous white mount's withers.

Bea (Kirnan) was one of many cowgirls who performed in bronc riding at Madison Square Gardens Rodeo in the early 1900's, and in fact won it in 1929.

The entire era of this type of rodeo, really more of a Wild West Show crossed with a rodeo, was short-lived – a glamourous era between 1885 and 1941. In fact, 1941 was the final year the Madison Square Garden Rodeo featured cowgirl bronc riding. The World War, in a large sense, brought such entertainment to an end, and when it resurfaced, years later, it could never seem to recapture it's former glory.

The world had irrevocably altered.

This is champion relay-racer Joella Irwin. I love the expression on her horse's face. She was the daughter of C.B. Irwin, who was one of the founders of Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming. Relay races were a highlight of early rodeos, when the grounds often had racetracks. Each cowgirl had three racehorses, and would circle the track once on each, switching then to the next horse. Eventually one cowgirl raised the the bar and invented the “flying change” which meant she would jump from one horse to the other without touching the ground, adding excitement and huge crowd appeal to the sport.

This is one of my all-time favorite cowgirl vintage photos, for the pure joy and love of life laid bare on the expression of Eloise Fox Hastings, one of the few women bulldoggers of the day. She is shown in this photograph at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon in 1924.

I love this passage in Teresa Jordan's excellent book, Cowgirls – Women of the American West.

“These rodeo women were stars, celebrities, their names were well known nation-wide. They were wined and dined in every city, and the top magazines and papers gave them lengthy coverage. These little wisps of women who could tame the wildest bronc or hang upside down over the hooves of a galloping steed, but who still dressed in silks and satins and loved to preen for men, charmed an America long in love with the Wild West.”

What a life!

What women!

You can find the Sweethearts of the Rodeo notecard series I've used to illustrate this post online at the True West magazine store.

Happy Valentine's Day!