Saturday, August 15, 2015

Classic Era Camping and Expedition Gear

The decline and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch is one of the great tragedies of Western culture.  Today it's a purveyor of casual clothing for teens and young adults that cultivate an insipid air of hipness, but it was once the premier provider of camping and expedition gear in the United States.  For over a century its name denoted quality and reliability in the field.  That all came to an end in 1976 when the outfitter declared bankruptcy.  The name and mailing list would live on, but the company known for providing the best in outdoor gear was gone forever.

Luckily for us, the Internet Archive has preserved a small part of the company's history with a digitized copy of their 1916 catalog.  As a resource for gamers this is priceless.  The catalog provides a comprehensive listing of guns, ammunition, camping gear, and expedition supplies complete with period prices.  To adjust the 1916 cost to the 1920s/1930s equivalent this inflation calculator should come in handy.

Beyond it's utility as an equipment handbook, the catalog is filled with the most seductive kind of gear porn.  One of the traps classic-era gamers fall into repeatedly is underestimating the technological sophistication of the period.  Flip through the pages and you'll see some amazingly well designed kit that wouldn't be out of place on store shelves today.

As an example, take a look at that "Shattuck Steamer and Camp Roll", a bedroll that doubles as luggage.  It carries your clothing rolled and wrinkle-free (well, relatively) in a waterproof shell, unrolls into a complete bedroll suitable for inclement weather, and includes a removable hanging shelf for toiletries.

The listing of dehydrated foods gives you an appreciation for how much variety was available.  Every one of these is still available today, with the notable exception of canned pemmican.  That's one item I'd really like to get my hands on, thanks to it's prominent place in both Chaosium's "Beyond the Mountains of Madness" and actual Antarctic expeditions.  

 As an aside, I'm in the process of getting some malt tablets, in particular Horlick's Malted Milk Tablets.  The tablets are vanishingly rare here in the United States despite the number of companies offering malted milk powder.  They were a go-to expedition and emergency ration for decades, but now they're a niche candy product that only appears to be produced under license in a few Asian countries.  Imported boxes are available on Amazon, but $8.50 for two snack packages is a bit steep for anything other than curiosity.

One other thing I wanted to draw attention to are fibre boxes.  The Abercrombie and Fitch catalog includes them with their packing supplies.  Based on the two examples I have on hand they were made from a mix of vulcanized rubber and wood fibers compressed under extreme pressure and heat.  The sheets of composite material were then riveted together to create a light, waterproof, and incredibly tough storage container.  They were used by multiple expeditions for storing equipment and supplies, the vintage equivalent of our modern Hardigg or Pelican boxes.


CoastConFan said...

What a highly useful find, thanks Propnomicon. I’m not sure that the inflation calculator is quite accurate across the board as some prices fell as manufacturing made them cheaper in relation to other items and some materials such as aluminum became quite inexpensive. I’d like to say that you can calculate the cost of items from 1916 to the post war era easily: there was a large inflation period just after the Great War that essentially doubled the dollar price of items but it was complemented by a doubling of income at the same time due to inflation.

So if you are trying to figure out the cost of these items in the 20s, you need only double the 1916 price in general. For pricing in the 30s, you need only take that doubled price and add another 10 to 20 percent, keeping in mind that the 1929 stock market crash made money harder to get overall and even fostered a bit of deflation. You can save a lot of time by just using this quick doubling rule.

Gold which was about $20 an ounce for several decades prior to 1929 had risen to $38 an ounce in 1935, which shows the dollar inflation perfectly despite the Great Depression, which normally would reflect a drop in value. The resulting historical “rise” in dollar value was due to inflation. See the following historical chart:

Bottom line for playing CoC and using circa WWI catalogues: double prices for the 1920s games and add another 10 percent or so for 1930s play as a basic rule of thumb.

1912 Sears Catalogue with 1,249 PDF pages

For those of you playing Cthulhu by Gaslight, the 1875 Monkey Ward catalogue might be of help

1897 Sears Catalogue

Michael W. Moses South Coast Antiques said...

Thank you so very much for this fine article on classic expedition gear! Slightly on the humorous side, but nonetheless a nice fact filled piece of writing. I most wholeheartedly appreciate the link to the A&F catalogue. Your post are always inspiring.