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Bean, L. L.free

(13 October 1872–05 February 1967)
  • Peter C. Holloran

Bean, L. L. (13 October 1872–05 February 1967), retail merchant, was born Leon Leonwood Bean in Greenwood, Maine, the son of Benjamin Warren Bean and Sarah Swett, farmers. Orphaned at age twelve, he lived with his brother and four sisters in South Paris, Maine, and briefly attended Kent Hill Academy and Hebron Academy. Lennie Bean worked in his brother’s retail store in Freeport and in an Auburn clothing store from 1892 to 1907. In 1898 Bean married Bertha Porter, and they had two sons and a daughter. After his wife died in 1939, he married Claire L. Boudreau in 1940. Achieving little success in various business ventures, from selling soap to working in a creamery, in 1907 Bean moved to his wife’s hometown, Freeport, Maine, to take over his brother Ervin’s retail store.

Bean’s unremarkable career changed in 1911 when he invented the leather-top, rubber-bottom Maine Hunting Shoe, which made him famous. A lifetime of hunting and fishing taught him that a practical way to keep the hunter’s feet warm and dry was lacking. More importantly, Bean discovered the lucrative direct-mail sporting goods business by selling these shoes by mail to holders of nonresident Maine hunting licenses. This experiment in direct-mail merchandising was unique. According to Bean company legend, ninety of the first hundred shoes sold were returned as defective, but Bean gave each customer a full refund. However, from 1912 to 1918 Bean perfected the patented design and built his company’s reputation and sales. He wrote personal letters to answer each inquiry or complaint, basing his success on the sale of quality outdoors products backed by an unconditional guarantee, a form of consumer protection made famous by larger mail-order retailers like Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck.

By 1917 Bean opened a retail store on Main Street in Freeport and added other hunting and camping gear to his inventory. He personally field tested every item he sold, cultivating the image of a folksy, honest, thrifty Yankee store small enough to care about quality and customer satisfaction. The Maine Hunting Shoe remained the centerpiece of his catalogue, but his chamois cloth shirt, zipper duffel bags, Hudson Bay “point” blankets, and other camping items proved popular. These high quality goods attracted a growing number of hunters, hikers and campers as loyal customers. By 1937 the company passed the million-dollar sales mark, and in 1951 Mr. Bean converted the store to a round-the-clock operation open every day (except Christmas) to accommodate many out-of-state “sports” driving north on U.S. Route One to fishing and hunting camps.

After World War II members of the expanding Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club discovered L. L. Bean and demand increased for outdoor recreation equipment. In 1954 Bean opened a women’s department and added more items for children. Maine’s outdoor recreational opportunities became very popular, and visitors from cities in the Northeast began to frequent the waterways, lakes, and forests of the “vacation state.” The Appalachian Trail, which begins at Mount Katahdin, and Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor also attracted increasing numbers of vacationing customers to the L. L. Bean store. By the 1960s a nationwide interest in ecology, the environment and personal fitness added to the L. L. Bean customer base, but his sales were limited by his company’s old-fashioned methods (one million mailing labels were typed by hand). In the 1960s his reputation spread by word of mouth rather than advertising, and the small Freeport store was expanded many times to accommodate growing numbers of shoppers.

Until his death in Florida, Bean remained president of the L. L. Bean Company, and his booming voice was commonly heard in the rambling Freeport store. He still answered many customer inquiries with a handwritten letter, a folksy practice that continued to distinguish the company. The basic selection of merchandise that Bean had sold since 1912—woodsman’s boots, chamois shirts, and tan cotton chino pants—remained unchanged, and the same design or materials for many products were still being used fifty years later. In addition to the traditional merchanise, however, the catalog contained hundreds of new items designed for outdoor leisure activities. Bean’s rustic Freeport store, decorated with a stuffed moose and a trout pond, became Maine’s second biggest tourist attraction, drawing more than two million visitors each year. The small specialty retail and mail-order catalogue company founded in 1912 was operated in later years by Mr. Bean’s grandson, Leon A. Gorman. Despite dramatic growth in products and sales, L. L. Bean’s image as the embodiment of Yankee virtue and value has continued to attract loyal customers throughout the United States and abroad.

Bibliography

Bean wrote a book addressing his favorite pastimes: Hunting-Fishing-Camping (1942). L. L. Bean, My Story (1939), provides autobiographical information. See also M. R. Montgomery, In Search of L. L. Bean (1984). His obituary is in the New York Times, 7 Feb. 1967.