Antiques

Life Wasn't Always a Picnic in L.L. Bean's Vintage Camping Scenes

Spring 1956 cover L.L. Bean catalog, "Father/Son Fishing and Mom," by R.J. Cavaliere, 1956

ABOVE Father/Son Fishing and Mom, R.J. Cavaliere, 1956.

TEXT BY JOHN BOTTERO
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF L.L. BEAN

On early L.L. Bean catalogs, renowned artists immortalized the charms, and challenges, of Maine outdoor life, John Bottero writes.

In 1912, Leon Leonwood (“L.L.”) Bean announced his new company with a three-page flyer featuring a single product, the Maine Hunting Shoe. After fixing an initial design flaw that caused the rubber bottoms to separate from the leather tops, he expanded his offerings, eventually displaying them in full-size catalogs. “If you drop in just to shake his hand, you get home to find his catalog in your mailbox,” remarked the Freeport columnist John Gould of Bean’s dedication to his mail-order business. In 1927, Postage magazine named Bean’s catalog the best in the country — and awarded him a whopping $25!

Spring 1966 cover L.L. Bean catalog "Perfect Spot," by Glen Fleischmann, 1966.
Spring 1938 cover of L.L. Bean catalog

ABOVE Perfect Spot, Glen Fleischmann, 1966; Two Men/Canoe, photographer unknown, 1938.

Illustrators were in high demand and highly regarded in the early 20th century, when names like Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth created memorable covers for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. Catalog retailers followed a similar playbook. Bean hired The Post illustrators R.J. Cavaliere and Glen Fleischmann, among other painters and photographers, to dream up iconic, sometimes humorous, outdoor scenes that lured customers with visions of a thrilling — or at least interesting — experience.

These days, you’re unlikely to discover an original L.L. Bean cover painting at a flea market or yard sale, but you may find a vintage catalog for under $50 — and occasionally, for less than the $20 Maine Hunting Shoes in the 1966 catalog, above.

John Bottero is the vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries. Constantly in pursuit of incredible finds, he sees dozens of people each week on Thomaston’s Free Appraisal Day and travels the state helping Mainers bring their collections and valuable heirlooms to market.


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