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How it Happened: The history of the Coleman company

When you hear “Coleman” what comes to your mind? A tent or lantern? That green cooler? It’s no wonder that Coleman has become practically synonymous with camping and the great outdoors. This company has been around for more than 120 years! And here’s how it happened…

Dark times overcome

William Coleman was born in 1870. Within a year the family, including baby William, relocated from New England to a small town in Kansas. In 1881, his father died, and 11-year-old William began selling small goods to help support his family.

When grown, William became a schoolteacher and later enrolled in the University of Kansas Law School. A lack of funds prevented William from graduating, so he began selling typewriters as he traveled the U.S.

The bright beginning

Folklore has it that one night William Coleman was walking down the street when he saw a bright, clear light coming from a drugstore window. Investigating further, Coleman learned that the lamp in the window was gasoline-powered. So impressed with the bright light, Coleman decided to try selling the Irby-Gilliland Company lamps himself. His success was limited, however. The design of the lamps caused them to become clogged with carbon deposits and the lamps would fail.

A brighter idea

Determined to make his efforts successful, William proposed a lamp leasing idea. Customers would lease a lamp for $1. If (or when) the lamp failed, William himself would service them and customers would owe nothing. The lamp leasing idea was a huge hit! William reinvested the money he earned along with money from relatives. He eventually started his own business, the Hydro-Carbon Light Company.

In 1902, William decided to move his successful lighting service to Wichita, Kansas. A year later, he bought the rights to the lamp and improved its design. He dubbed his lamp the Coleman Arc Lamp. The lights were used to illuminate the field at a nighttime football game in 1905, and William’s reputation grew.

More bright ideas

  • 1909 – William developed his own uniquely designed gasoline-powered lamps. He added bug screens to the mantle so that the lamps could be used outside at night.
  • 1910-1920 – William Coleman’s business grew. He brought light to rural areas not yet served by electricity.
  • 1920s – The business branched out to include lanterns, camp and cook stoves, and more. Some of William’s inventions faced stiff competition from Westinghouse Electric Corporation and General Electric Company. He was forced to withdraw his coffee maker, for example, but he continued to push forward with his other ideas.
  • 1929 – The stock market crash hurt almost every company in the U.S. William managed to survive because he enjoyed a good working relationship with his bankers. They helped Coleman and his company make it through the depression years.
  • 1932 – With Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to bring electricity to rural areas, William’s company had to pivot once again. He began making space heaters and floor furnaces. All the while Coleman’s lantern and portable cook stove products gained popularity.
  • World War II – During the war, the company was called upon to provide shells and spare parts for various branches of the military. In 1942, the Army Quartermaster sent the Coleman company a nearly impossible request. They needed a compact field stove no larger than a quart of milk, able to operate at temperatures ranging from 60 degrees below zero to 125 degrees above zero, and powered by any type of fuel. They needed 5,000 of these never-before-produced stove units delivered within two months! William was up to the challenge. In fact, he surpassed the Army’s specifications and delivered on time!

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  • 1950s – Post wartime saw William’s company surge in prominence and profitability. The company continued to supply Boeing Co. with airplane parts, produced oil space heaters and gas floor furnaces, and resumed manufacturing camp lanterns and stoves. Sheldon Coleman was named president in 1951 and in 1957, Sheldon became board chairman when his father died.
  • The ’60s-’70s – The Coleman company expanded its production of camping equipment, adding sleeping bags, tents, and heating equipment. Coleman also began serving the mobile home industry with specialized furnaces and air conditioners.
  • In 1964, Sheldon Coleman hired longtime employee Lawrence Jones as the company’s president. The two men collaborated on product development and successfully produced adjustable backpack frames, coolers and camp stoves, canoes, and even travel trailers.
  • 1980s-1990s – After the death of his father in 1988, Sheldon Coleman, Jr. took over as Chairman of the Board. He privatized the company and New York financial mogul Ronald Perelman bought it. Along with President Lawrence Jones, Perelman restructured the company. The two men focused on the growing recreational markets and eventually took the Coleman company public once again, with Perelman retaining over 80 percent stake in the operations.
  • 1990–today – The company has since expanded its product lines to include everything from generators to dog toys. If you love the outdoors, sooner or later you’ll discover a Coleman product that you just must have!

What’s your favorite Coleman product? Please share with us in the comments below.

More How it Happened:

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Mandy
2 months ago

I grew up with The Coleman’s, they were my grandparents best friends ..mostly Bud and Betty. They partied alot 🤣

Tim
2 months ago

Does Coleman actually produce anything or simply sell licensing rights to use the name? I believe the selling of name rights is their primary product.

Dick Hime
2 months ago

My son-in-law, a Metropolitan Area Fire Chief and retired Air Force Reserve Fire Rescue Senior Chief Master Sergeant has a hobby, among others, of restoring old tired Coleman Lanterns. He makes them look and operate just like brand new! He’s a craftsman when it comes to cooking, too.

Dennis Johnson
2 months ago

My wife worked for them at a plant in Minnesota for several years. She sewed life jackets for Stearns until being bought out by larger corporations three times, the last being put under control of Coleman, who is owned by a large holding corporation. Working conditions deteriorated rapidly. Instead of helping people to become better sewers, they punished them for mistakes by suspension without pay. When my wife spoke up against this, she all of a sudden had “mistakes” after sewing for 30+ years. Just before her 3rd “mistake” could have happened and caused her being fired, she retired and saved her benefits. They are a horrible company to work for and have since closed that plant, putting 300 out of work. Their jobs have reportedly gone to China, which was previously tried but failed and were brought back. We no longer buy any “Coleman” products.

Drew
2 months ago

Glad it’s still an American company. What fuel did the small stoves burn in WW2?

Jerry Eddy
2 months ago

In the late 70’s I was became involved as a Scout Manager in the Boy Scouts. I purchased Coleman lanterns and camp Stoves. Later I got a couple camp heaters. When their tents came on the market we obtained a dozen light weight tents. I encouraged Coleman back packs and frames to my troop. Even today, I still have 2 original lanterns, two different of the original stoves and a heater. I still use them often.

Dave
2 months ago

Some 5 or 6 years ago, while in the Colemen store in Branson, MO, we spotted 2 really nice looking chairs with side tables. After sitting in them for a bit, we bought them and were very happy until we had a big rain storm. A few days later, we noticed the tables were just about bend enough that they would come out of their metal holders. As they were only 2 months or less old, we took them back and were told by the manager that they couldn’t warranty them because we left them OUTSIDE. Aren’t these camping chairs? No more Coleman for us!!!

Edward
2 months ago

The red Coleman 200A lantern.

Mike Doyne
2 months ago

My favorite was when they owned Hobie Cat sailboats. We have had Coleman lanterns and stoves for over 60 years. I remember my grandfather searching for “white gas “ to power the appliances.

Donald N Wright
2 months ago

I wish they had a club for all of us with Coleman Popup campers and their other folding trailers.

Crowman
2 months ago

My family has used Coleman products for the last 100 years when they were all made in the USA. Now most of their stuff is made in China and is mostly garbage quality.

D. Follett
2 months ago

I’ve owned their stoves, lanterns, and ice chests. Also two Coleman tent trailers in the 1990’s, those were a lot of fun.

Larry
2 months ago

I remember my father’s gas powered single burner camp stove that required white gas so it burn clean. If I remember right it had to be pumped up to burn. Now myself and grand kids ride the Coleman Mini bike that I purchased at Tractor Supply.

jerry mulligan
2 months ago

Lantern and stove.

Gerry B.
2 months ago

I have a Coleman camp stove that has been used for over 45 years. We started tent camping moved to a pickup camper and now have a class A. The stove is still with us. I cannot imagine how many dozens of eggs and pounds of bacon must have been cooked on the stove. We still use it on occasion.

Michael Roach
2 months ago
Reply to  Gerry B.

Awesome ! I have my father’s Coleman stove and camp oven from 1960 that I still use to cook with. He is gone now but I have so many great memories of camping with the family when I was a young boy.

Steve Salzman
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael Roach

We still have a Coleman camp stove and ice chest purchased in 1974. We even have the original folding metal stands to keep them off the ground. The stove stays with our RV; the ice chest serves up cold beverages at home on the patio. Indestructible. Never felt old using them until I walked into a REI earlier this year and saw my ice chest on the wall as part of a vintage camping display!

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