Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada
The Origin of the Hudsons Bay Point Blanket
The Meaning of the Points
What Blankets Cost
How Point Blankets Are Made
Using Point Blankets
Point Blankets -- an Example from the Columbia
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading
“Point” blankets are wool blankets marked on one edge with black or indigo stripes. They were a very important item in the fur trade. The Native peoples valued them for several reasons – they were warm, durable, light-weight and very useful as clothing. The bright colors were popular, but the white blankets also sold well in the winter when they were useful for camouflage in the hunt.
For over a century, point blankets were an essential item imported to Rupert's Land in the fur trade. They continue to be sold today, though they are now inextricably associated with the Hudson's Bay Company, and are even sold by other companies as “HBC blankets.” But the first so-called “pointed” blankets were made for French trading companies for sale to Aboriginal buyers. There are references to “point” blankets in early French trade records dating back at least to the very early 1700s.
The Hudson's Bay Company did sell "blanketing" or "duffle," a heavy wool cloth, but not point blankets before 1780. In 1779, Thomas Huchins at Albany House was approached by a Canadien fur trader, Monsieur Germain Maugenest, who offered to help the Hudson's Bay Company improve its trade. Maugenest was sent to London on the next supply ship. Arriving in London he was quickly hired by the Hudson's Bay Company as an advisor and trader. Maugenest made several suggestions for new trade items, including lidded copper kettles, which became a staple trade good, and he also suggested that the HBC start trading blankets similar to those produced for Montreal-based companies. The company took up Maugenest's suggestion and approached a woolen manufacturer, Thomas Empson of Whitney in Oxfordshire, to make up a trial order of 500 point blankets – 100 in 1, 1 1/2, 2, 2 1/2 and 3 point sizes. In 1780, the first HBC point blankets were shipped to Fort Albany on James Bay, where they proved so popular that they became a standard trade item. Before long, several firms were producing this type of blanket for the HBC, North West Company and other fur trade firms.
The stripes on the blankets were about 5 1/2 inches (14 cm) long to indicate a full point, and half that long for half a point. Today point blankets are manufactured in sizes up to 6 points, which fit king sized beds. But in the fur trade period the largest blankets were 4 point blankets. Point numbers refer to the size of the blanket (essentially its width), and thus the approximate cost. A 1 point blanket was originally set at 2 feet 8 inches wide and 8 feet long (although they could vary slightly) and it weighed just over 3 lb. (or roughly 1.5 kg.).
Many sources suggest that, for the HBC, a general rule of thumb was that 1 point blankets sold for 1 made beaver (the value of one prime beaver pelt) up to 4 made beaver for a 4 point blanket. This is an oversimplification and the actual cost of a blanket varied from post to post and over time. As well, the points are not always an indication of the quality of the blanket, because blankets of quite different quality – and thus price – could have the same point number (for example, see list from the Columbia Dept below). But eventually, because the Native consumers demanded a particular standard, the trade companies ordered their blankets from a decreasing number of manufacturers, making the size and quality of the point blankets increasingly predictable.
Circumstances such as local demand, transportation costs, amount of competition and other factors mean that the actual cost of a blanket at any one time at a post needs to be determined using account books and standards of trade. For example, the prices at Moose Factory in 1784 were 1 made beaver for a 1 point blanket, 2 made beaver for a 1 1/2 point blanket, 2 1/2 made beaver for a 2 point blanket, 3 made beaver for a 2 1/2 point blanket and 4 made beaver for a 3 point blanket. Still the equation of 1 point per1 made beaver is a good rough guide to price. Blankets also came in different qualities, so points should not be taken as an exact indicator of price in all cases.
The manufacture of these blankets is also interesting. They were woven, usually by hand up to the 1850s. After that machine made blankets became more common, but some were still hand woven as late as about 1900. The woven blanket was then beaten with wooden mallets to create the characteristic felted quality of a point blanket. This process reduced the size of the original woven blanket but made it thicker and more durable, warmer and shrink resistant. This in turn made point blankets very desirable as bedding and as material for clothing such as capotes, gloves, moccasin liners etc.
There are now many more colours (and much brighter colours due to the use of modern chemical dyes) for these blankets than in the past. Surviving records indicate that in the 19th century the HBC ordered blankets in white, blue, scarlet and green (and other colours), with bars and without, with varying numbers of bars, with bars in different colours, and in various patterns. Today, the white blanket with black, yellow, green and scarlet stripes that is called sometimes the “chief's blanket” is often assumed to have been the standard pattern. White blankets with multiple bars of colour do appear in trade records from the early 19th century on, but there was no standard pattern of colours or number of stripes. The origin of the name “chief's blanket” is unclear; it probably came into use at some point in the 19th century. In American records this style of blanket was often simply termed a “Hudson's Bay blanket.”
There is no particular significance to the colours other than what customers wanted, although white/natural wool coloured blankets would have offered some camouflage in winter. Of course, the coloured stripes would have undermined this camouflage effect. The colours available were based on dyes available to the weavers at the time. There are some suggestions in trade records that certain colours were more popular than others, indicating that fashion did raise its head in the fur trade on occasion.
At York Factory, a report on merchandise shipped to the post noted that the preferred colour for capotes was “light blue mixed” not the dark grey capotes that were usually shipped at the time. (HBCA: B.239/b/92) When it came to blankets, some customers preferred certain colours, but at many posts trade goods were in short enough supply that they probably bought whatever was available.
Blankets were used for bedding and as material for clothing of various sorts. The most common use was in the manufacture of capotes (the famous blanket coat which appears in various styles), but scrap blanketing could also be used to decorate other clothing, to make mittens or gloves, to line footwear in winter etc. Given its value, little would be wasted. The HBC also sold pre-made capotes as a trade item, so not all blanket-based clothing came into the North West as blankets.
The attraction of blanket material for coats and other clothing was that it was easy to cut and sew. It was also warm, durable and practical. It replaced leather and furs in Aboriginal peoples and fur traders wardrobes (HBC employees at York Factory wore beaver coats in winter in the 18th century, not blanket capotes, for example). From the perspective of Aboriginal men and women, blankets had several advantages over leather and fur as a clothing material. You didn't need to kill an elk or a deer to get the skin in the first place or to go through the work of tanning and preparing the hide or fur (although you did have to produce something the fur traders would take in trade). In addition to being relatively easy to cut to shape and to sew, blanket material's felted quality meant that it wasn't as prone to unravel if cut across the weave like more conventional cloth would be without hemming.
That said though, fur and leather were still used and they had advantages in terms of warmth, water resistance and other factors for some uses. Aboriginal people did not abandon their older clothing materials so much as integrate blanketing into their material culture for specific purposes. Clothing styles and designs also were relatively persistent. It was the material certain types of clothing were made from that changed - not the style or type of clothing.
The following variety of blanket sizes, colours and qualities are known to have been shipped to the Columbia Department between 1824 and 1854, and thus could have been available at Fort Langley.
Blue Blankets 3 point
Green Blankets 4 point
Blue Bar Green Blankets 3 point
Makina Blankets 1 1/2, 2 point
Best Blue Bar Plain Blankets 1, 1 1/2, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2 point
Inferior Blue Bar Plain Blankets 1, 1 1/2, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2, 4 point
Inferior Red Bar Plain Blankets 2, 2 1/2, 3, 31/2 point
Blue Bar Rosed Blankets 10/4 (shillings and pence?)
Scarlet Blankets 2 1/2 point
G(reen) & B(lue or black) Striped Blkts 3 point
B(lue) & Y(ellow) Striped Blankets 1,3 point
B(lue) G(reen)&Y(ellow)B(lack) Striped
Blankets 3 point
These blankets were supplied by at least 6 different manufacturers; most but not all from the Whitney area of Oxfordshire.
The “rosed” blankets mentioned in the above list are an interesting variation from the more common point trade blanket. Rosed blankets were made from untwilled wool and were decorated with an embroidered rose design on two or more corners of the blanket. The roses were hand-sewn in red, green and yellow yarn. These blankets appear to have been more common in the fur trade in what is now the United States where they were sometimes used as special presentation blankets.
“Mons. Maugenest Suggests” The Beaver, Outfit 287 (Summer 1956) pp. 49-53.
Lester A. Ross,
“Hudson's Bay Company Suppliers Volume 1 An Illustrated Directory of British Commercial Suppliers Who Provided Manufactures, Products and Provisions known to be available in the Columbia Department 1824-54” (Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1979) Manuscript Report Series # 381. The other volumes by Lynne Sussman and Andre Lafleche in this publication also contain information on suppliers of blankets to other departments.
“Indian Trade Blankets in the Pacific Northwest History and Symbolism of a Unique North American Tradition,” in Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History vol.16 no.2 (Summer 2002). The text of this excellent article can be read at Columbia Magazine. The article does deal with trade blankets in Canada but it is primarily focused on the Pacific Northwest.
The Hudson's Bay Company's website has some basic information on blankets: www.hbc.com
Another good website for information on fur trade material history – particularly aimed at historical re-enactors is: nothwest journal. This site has several articles on clothing made from blanket material.