Repository Spotlight - Hard at Work: The Carhartt Archive

by Dave J. Moore, Brand Archivist and Historian

Three dollars could buy you a good sized order of overalls at the turn of the 20th century. This check was submitted to Hamilton Carhartt & Co., based in Detroit, from D.L. Powers of Jonesville, Michigan in 1898.

120 years later, Powers Clothing is still going strong… and still selling Carhartt. When you have retail partners that old, you know you must be doing something right. Financial records like this are just one example of the materials held by the Carhartt Archive. Catalogs, advertisements, sales and personal correspondence, garment tags, photographs, order forms, historic garments – they all come together to tell the story of how the hard work of one traveling salesman evolved into a global brand. Founder Hamilton Carhartt was known to say, “We are building our business for the years, not for a season or two.” The Carhartt Archive, located just 10 miles from where he set up his first sewing machines, has the responsibility of documenting those years.

Here are some highlights from the Carhartt Archive’s collection:

The oldest (and probably the most well-worn) Carhartt overalls, circa 1889 

Booklet of customer testimonials, circa 1922 

WWII poster featuring welder George Woolslayer in Carhartt overalls, 1941 

Materials related to unique historical products, like these 1960s “Surfers” 

The push to formally organize an archive at Carhartt came as the company’s 125th anniversary approached in 2014. A multitude of materials were saved over the years, but the lack of physical and intellectual control made access extremely difficult. Carhartt brought in processing archivists to inventory, arrange, and begin rehousing the materials. Gaps in the collection were identified to guide future acquisitions. Interviews were carried out with departmental subject matter experts to help the archivists understand what types of legacy materials were desired on a regular basis. By the end of the discovery process, the Carhartt Archive had a solid foundation upon which to build.

Carhartt Archive logo.

Today, the archive serves as a one stop shop for Carhartt’s internal departments to access the company’s history. It’s a lean operation, consisting of an archive manager, a full-time archivist and historian, and a rotating intern, but has been able to significantly impact the brand. A massive digitization initiative has made legacy assets more accessible than ever. Extensive databases built from archival catalogs and price lists have solidified the histories of Carhartt’s most iconic products. In fact, the company’s Fall 2017 marketing campaign was built around the 100th anniversary of the Carhartt Chore Coat, a milestone that was unearthed through new research by the archive.

Ad featuring the Chore Coat in the Vancouver Daily World, 1917.

The archive also functions as a source for historical interpretation. It is consulted by the Marketing and PR departments to help bring the brand’s legacy into new campaigns and helps Product Design draw inspiration from vintage garments. It has also sought out its own opportunities to impact customers, instituting a history blog on the Carhartt website ( and spearheading monthly presentations on the company’s social media channels.

Founder Hamilton Carhartt.

The archive has found a prominent place in the company, mainly because Carhartt consistently operates with its history at the forefront.

These are two of the company’s official Core Values:

Act Like Hamilton Carhartt: Be Inspired by Hardworking People

Respect Our Past While Walking Bravely into the Future

There will always new products, new technologies, and new fabrics. Carhartt is constantly looking to improve what they make and how they make it, but the philosophy remains the same as it was when Hamilton first hitched up his horses and wagon: Listen to your customers and build what they need. Listen to your employees and treat them with respect. And in everything you do, operate with responsibility, honesty, and integrity. The Carhartt Archive is proud to steward the materials that back up this philosophy.

All images courtesy Carhartt Archive.

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