Factory visit: inside 100 years of L.L. Bean
Almost every step of Bean Boot production at the L.L. Bean factory in Brunswick is done by hand and by eye. Above, a worker who has been with the company for ten years carefully stitches the leather uppers on a boot.
When operations manager Royce Haines walks up and down the aisles of the L.L. Bean factory in Brunswick, he stops to greet each of the workers by name.
“This is Brenda Smith, one of our most experienced vamping stitchers,” Haines said, gesturing to a woman operating a sewing machine that attaches the rubber bottoms of boots to their leather tops.
Haines continued down the aisle, saying hello to workers attaching grommets and inserting lining. “There are a lot of new faces out there,” Haines said, looking out across the factory floor, “but a lot of folks have been here for a while.”
L.L. Bean is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the outdoor retail company has hired a wave of new workers to help meet the increasing demand for its inaugural product, the Bean Boot, a footwear staple for many students on the Hill.
Carolyn Beem, manager of public affairs at L.L. Bean, estimates that the factory in Brunswick will produce about 500,000 pairs of Bean Boots this year, up from 400,000 pairs last year.
But while many people have recently come to appreciate the boot’s classic look and comfortable fit, the design itself “has stayed pretty consistent all these years,” Haines said. “In fact, I can’t think of anything that’s changed.”
The Bean Boot was first created in 1911, when Leon Leonwood (“L.L.”) Bean returned from a hunting trip with cold, wet feet. He came up with the idea of attaching leather tops to rubber work boots and commissioned a local cobbler to do the stitching, thus creating the first functional footwear for exploring the muddy Maine woods during seasonal snow melts.
Bean dubbed this invention the “Maine Hunting Shoe,” and in 1912, he obtained a mailing list of nonresident Maine hunting license holders and sent them each a three-page flyer advertising the new boot. “We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way,” the flyer read.
Bean stuck by this statement when customers returned 90 of the first 100 boot orders, because the shoes’ rubber bottoms separated from their leather tops. He risked going out of business to refund their money, but he remained committed to perfecting the design for what fans of his product would later refer to as the “Bean Boot,” which would come to develop a myriad of other uses besides hunting.
Today, Bean Boots are popular in urban areas across the country as well as in the Maine woods, because their rubber bottoms make them well suited for slogging through slushy city streets three out of four seasons of the year. “It’s a functional boot, and if fashion follows function, then great,” Beem said, explaining their recent rise in sales despite surprisingly few alterations to their design.
Of course today, the boots’ rubber soles are both cemented and stitched to their leather tops to ensure that they don’t come apart, but the cement used to attach them is one of the only chemicals used in the production process, Haines explained.
Even in today’s increasingly mechanized society, L.L. Bean’s boots are made “all by hand and by eye,” Beem said proudly, and the tools used to make them have hardly changed since L.L. sorted out some initial glitches. “Whenever a new machine comes in, it looks exactly like the one from the 50s,” Beem said.
“Or the 40s or 30s,” Haines said, laughing.
While L.L. Bean has grown to become one of the leaders in outdoor retail, the company proudly continues Bean’s commitment to customer satisfaction, and it offers a mail-in repair service specifically for the Maine Hunting Shoe.
“People love their Bean Boots,” Beem said. “They get pretty attached to them,” she explained. The factory in Brunswick will repair about 40,000 pairs this year.
Haines walked over to a rack of tired-looking boots that customers sent in to be repaired. “You can tell this guy took pretty good care of the leather,” he said, picking up a faded brown boot and pointing out soft, subtle crease marks in the leather. It’s clear that the boots develop a lot of sentimental value throughout their lifespan, and although some especially well-worn pairs can be hard to repair, but ultimately “there are very few boots that we can’t fix,” Haines said.
In the end, it’s definitely worth it sending in for repairs, because “once you break them in, you can’t beat a pair of Bean Boots,” Haines said.