The Hudson’s Bay Company blanket may appear to be a fairly plain household item, but it’s perhaps the most remarkable blanket in the world. The off-white wool patterned with slender stripes of green, red, yellow, and indigo played a vital role in how modern Canada came to be—and it's still for sale today.
The Hudson’s Bay Company is now a well-known retail group that claims to be the oldest company in North America, and it includes Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor among its department stores. But as far back as 1670, the company, then under royal charter from England, operated as a fur trading business, pioneering the exploration and settling of Canada. In many of the farther regions, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the effective government of the vast territory, and was at one point the largest landowner in the world, controlling approximately 15 percent of North America.
And it was the striped Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket that helped pioneer the way.
According to the official company history, blankets had been taken to Hudson Bay as trade goods as far back as 1668. But it was in 1779 that the Company first commissioned the English textile mill of Thomas Empson in Oxfordshire for “30 pair[s] of 3 points to be striped with four colors (red, blue, green, yellow) according to your judgment.”
The durable and warm blanket was prized by the early fur traders, miners, and prospectors. “I have in my possession,” wrote one such explorer, “one of a pair of blankets which I purchased in your store 30 years ago this month … packed north all through the mountains and received some of the roughest usage that any fabric could possibly survive. I could not truthfully estimate how many tons of river gravel was dumped onto it and washed in our attempts to find gold.”
But more importantly, the striped blanket proved highly popular with the native inhabitants of Canada. Easier to sew than bison and seal skins, and much quicker to dry, the blankets provided superb insulation during the harsh winter months. Often the blankets were converted into winter coats, known as “capotes.” As fur trade increased, it was the striped blanket that often paved the way for the early relationships between the company adventurers and the native tribes, and it was often traded for beaver pelts.
As well as the traditional stripes, the iconic blanket was also known for its “points”: a series of thin black lines located just above the lower stripes. These “points” were not, as is sometimes commonly believed, an indicator of how many pelts the blanket was worth in trade, but an easy-to-read measurement of how large the blanket was. When folded, the lines, or “points” would be displayed, easily indicating the exact size of the blanket. The term stemmed from the French empointer (to make threaded stitches on the cloth). According to the company’s specifics:
A full point measured 4 – 5.5 in.; a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1 point blankets was: 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.
As the lucrative fur trade expanded into Canada, with an increasing number of trading posts, forts, and settlements, the highly prized point blanket became a primary trading commodity. Demand was so great that production back in England was expanded to the A.W. Hainsworth Company in Yorkshire toward the end of the 18th century. Their wool was known for being well-made and had been used in everything from billiard tables to the felt on piano hammers. Still made there today, Hainsworth is so prestigious, it was worn by both Prince William and Harry at the 2011 royal wedding.
By the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company had evolved into a vast mercantile retail empire, often transforming their frontier trading posts into general stores, catering to—as their official history put it—“one that shopped for pleasure and not with skins.” Today the company is one of the oldest existing in the world, and still bears the distinctive colored stripes on some versions of its logo.
Despite its iconic status, the blanket is not without controversy. Disturbing claims have accused British administrators in North America of using the Hudson’s Bay blanket to spread smallpox among the native tribes as the British Empire expanded further into Canada. General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the Seven Years War, suggested in a letter to one of his colonels that the deadly pox might be introduced to the local population, and the colonel’s reply put forward the horrific idea that it could be conveyed in blankets. But according to their official history, “Hudson’s Bay Company had nothing to do with the story of the use of smallpox as biological warfare.” Complicating matters even further, while there was an outbreak of smallpox in native communities the following spring, the disease was already present in those areas before Amherst’s letters, so it’s unknown if he actually went through with the plan or merely mentioned it.
These days, the distinctive stripes can be found on everything from iPhone cases to golf balls to beach chairs. But the blanket itself is still for sale, looking much as it did when the original orders were placed in London over 230 years ago, paving the way for the birth of modern Canada.