If you think blankets are just things that fill your linen closet, read on. Blankets are also collectible, and neither are Canada’s famous Hudson’s Bay blankets.
The history of these blankets dates back over 200 years, and a first can cost more than your entire bedroom. Nonetheless, they’re some of the most distinctive and sought-after covers of all time, and there’s an inherent language to all of the stripes and dots. If you have a full closet, someone in your family tree knew what they were doing. Snuggle up and keep reading.
For starters, Hudson’s Bay blankets aren’t named after the body of water, but rather after the company that gave birth to them. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was incorporated in 1670, more than 100 years before the American Revolution. It was a trading company that sent dealers all over the north to obtain beaver pelts, much sought after by the landed class in England for making hats and coats. Blankets were the usual medium of exchange, and within 30 years of its founding, Hudson’s Bay was importing blankets by the thousands.
By 1779 HBC had grown to the point where some standardization was needed, so the company contracted with a British factory to produce a proprietary cover with stripes or “dots” to indicate the number of beaver pelts needed in return.
As beaver numbers dwindled due to overhunting, HBC expanded its efforts into other categories, and the Hudson’s Bay blanket effectively became a bargaining chip for the purchase of all manner of goods. . At the time, native blankets were handmade and relatively rare, so this flood of warm fabrics was a welcome addition to many villages.
Originally, Hudson’s Bay Blankets came in several solid colors with a distinct stripe of indigo called a “header” at both ends. As time passed and traders learned the preferences of different tribes, other colors were added. Some coastal regions preferred lighter blankets and that’s how the iconic white design with colored stripes came about. The colors of the stripes themselves had no special meaning and were considered a bit garish when introduced, but they proved popular. Such blankets are still made today, not only by HBC, but by a variety of other factories. Of these, Pendleton is perhaps the best known, having introduced its ever-popular Glacier Stripe line in 1916.
So to the question “When isn’t a cover just a cover?” one answer comes from our neighbors to the north and their iconic Hudson’s Bay design, still in high demand after more than two centuries.
Original HBC covers will often include a yellow-on-white tag as a badge of authenticity, but it’s not uncommon for these tags to be removed or missing. The real ones are always 100% wool, but many of them are made by others. A new Hudson’s Bay will get you somewhere in the triple digits, which isn’t bad for an item that will provide generations of utility and beauty. And you won’t have to spit out a single beaver to get one.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His column on antiques appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].