JanSport formed in the later half of the 1960s, and was contemporary with the early days of such well-known companies as Sierra Designs, North Face, and Frostline.. It was founded in Washington State in 1967. According to founder Murray McCory (Pletz), "Jansport Inc. was founded in July 1967 by Murray Pletz, president, Norman Pletz, vice president, and Mabel Pletz, treasurer. Murray changed his name in 1981 to McCory." (Norman Pletz was Murray's father)...
This company stands out in my memory for their very creative and unusual catalogs The image below was taken in summer 1967 high in the Cascade Mountains at Paradise Inn on 14,000 foot Mt. Rainier. Already the penchant toward originality shines out. Shown are founder Murray Pletz on the left and his cousin Skip Yowell on the right. Murray wryly remarked that of course it was most likely Jan Lewis who took the picture, "Who else would it have been!" which was a reference to how tiny the company really was! The pack displays one of their iconic fabrics, the American-flag material...The label in this picture is the original company label, drawn by hand by Murray... Hallmarks of that earliest label include-- "the snowcapped mountain," the company name is spelled like Jan Lewis' name, as two separate words with each half capitalized; finally, the company's city of origin is shown "Seattle," the company's base of operations in the early days, before they moved to Everett and the Paine Field. For a recent picture of Mr. Yowell, please see page bottom.
The oft-told tale about the origin of the "JanSport" company name is this: Murray was an industrial design student at the University of Washington. He entered a contest and designed a backpack that used aluminum in its flexible frame. His girlfriend Jan Lewis helped with the sewing portions of the project such as the packbag. Murray bought her the sewing machine used for the sewing in January of 1966 for $180. Then Murray entered their finished pack in the design contest sponsored by the Alcoa aluminum company and won the prize (mug picture compliments of Mr. Pletz). Using the contest award as "seed" money, he and his father Norman Pletz formed a company on a shoestring budget and got a business license. Somewhat later, his cousin Skip Yowell joined the company, at first as a pieceworker in shipping and gradually more officially. The origin story also famously includes a marriage! It's told that early-on Murray made Jan an offer she couldn't refuse-- to name the company after her, AND to marry her if she'd join up and sew for him! (so Jan sewed and Murray did marry her, and the fledgling company was given a home above a Seattle transmission shop (Northwest Parts Rebuilders) that was owned by Murray's very supportive father Norman Pletz. Norman was a machinist with the needed tools to cast and form metal parts such as the pack frames).... Sidenote: Trapper Nelson pack boards, 1922: more than 40 years before JanSport, Seattle saw Lloyd Nelson, a local inventer, create what was for its time a major new innovation in packs, the Trapper Nelson Indian pack board.
Jan Lewis in 2000 was the Director of Development for the VF-owned Company. In 2005 she retired to the Seattle area, where Murray also now lives. JanSport is currently another of the VF Corporation holdings, along with North Face and many other outdoor and clothing big names.
JanSports' early catalogs were marked by a very fresh and personal approach. A favorite of the fledgling company was cover photography which featured one or more of the founders and their modern gear artfully pasted into historical photographs. Often the images seemed to be from the Alaskan pioneering era/The Klondike because Murray's grandfather was actually part of that historic time. In the 1980 catalog, for example, we find Jan and Skip having fun in an imaginary historical setting with reindeer herders of the Far North!
JanSports' catalogs also fequently feature extremely high quality photography* showing products being worn by the founders and various employees. Images of the models in the 1979 "Cross Country" and the 1980 Main catalog in particular seem to me to be portrait-quality, and can still be enjoyed as artful representations of the young people and culture of the Time. The image of Jan Lewis near page top was taken from the 1979 "Cross Country" catalog. She was not named and was just advertising one of the company's packs. The same was true even for famous mountain-climber Lou Whittaker, for example in the Fall-Winter 1977-78 catalog, pg. 15, where he appears wearing a frame pack but also unnamed. (* David Imanaka furnished this information about the talent behind such wonderful artsy catalogs as shown above: Product Photos: Todd Pearson and Robert Milner; Oldtime photo components: Marsha Burns and Michaels Burns; Airbrush work on oldtime photos: Al Dogget; Art Director (1977-1985) David Imanaka).
The Jansport Mountain Dome is a notable step forward within the History of Gear. It was designed by Murray and marketed by the company in the early 70s. It became very popular, some say even an Industry Standard. It came to market after K2 bought the company, so K2 needed to "sign on" to adding it to the JanSport product line. A gear rep was very helpful in this respect. His name was Keith Roush, who had met Skip Yowell on a climb of Mt. Rainier. Roush had many connections and some design skills of his own. This all led to him helping with the tent, especially the flexible poles design and sourcing of them. Roush says he was present when the very first Mtn. dome was sewn and triumphantly displayed to K2 Skis, the company's new owner.. The dome design took off fast, users loved its ability to hold up to heavy snow loads, and soon it was outselling the classic A-frame mountains tents of the big makers..... However, says Roush, The North Face didn't like this and worked with Buckminister Fuller to bring to market three years later a true Geodesic dome tent, the Oval Intention. This revolutionized things in the tent world (click to see first geodesic tents).... Below is a picture of Monte Dodge's classic version of the JS Mountain Dome-- the 1975 "K2 Expedition Mountain Dome." K2 of course is the second highest mountain in the world, and this JS dome had several added features to make it rugged enough for severe Himalayan snow and wind storms.
Packs: Jansport's initial entry into business was as a result of Murray winning an important design contest with a flexible frame pack design, and this innovation continued in the arena of framed packs, where JanSport gained a big foothold by being first to make frame packs sized for women and children, according to Murray. In regard to technical packs, Roush again lent a hand, and a JanSport model named the Alpine Phantom became one of the pinnacles of flexible frame packs ever made (picture will be posted soon).. On a more prosaic, but very profitable level, Jansport very early in its course recognized the need for better packs for students ("book packs"), and has basically owned this niche ever since, right up to the present. Students all over the World are proud to be seen wearing their Jansport book packs! Even in Europe where Eastpack dominates the bookpacks, JanSport is still popular.
Sleeping Bag Design: Jansport may not have been among the true pioneers in sleeping bag design, but they definitely challenged the early Marmot bags in the category of unrestrained use of multi-colored and FUN shell materials (see image below)...
Shown is the Jansport "Brass Bed" series, which featured down tops paired with Polarguard bottoms. This unusual design was meant to maximize the powers of down, while minimizing down's two main weaknesses-- compressibility under body weight, and poor performance when wet or damp...some liked this design and some did not... I personally owned one for awhile, and eventually sold it because it was far bulkier than an all-down bag. I also found that while the Polarguard bottom was good for summer camping, for sleeping on snow it was not enough insulation, and one still had to carry a separate sleeping pad or suffer a night of poor sleeping-- "warm on top, and chilly on the bottom."
Murray comments about the circa 1978 catalog picture below: "I am in the photo you attached, as the person in the Brass Bed sleeping bag, while Jan is next to me in the Burley Boy sleeping bag. Phersumba Sherpa, nephew of Ghombu, is to her right, and Skip to my left [crouching]."
The Company has had several corporate owners. It was sold to its first corporate owner, K2 Corporation (of ski fame) in 1971-72. Some say that the original "flavor" of the Company changed to mainstream after the divorce of Murray and Jan, with Murray leaving the Company circa 1982. In any case, since 1986, Jansport has been wholly owned by one of the giants, VF Corporation. Sales in 2004 were an estimated 300 million dollars.....
Of great interest-- Skip Yowell released his long-awaited book about Jansport and his life in January 2007. The title is typically JanSport-like in its flair: "The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Coroporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen." Many of the book's pictures are by Keith Roush. My friends say that it's a good read and illuminating about the Industry. Meanwhile, Skip's cousin and company founder Murray McCory (Pletz) still resides in the State of Washington, in the Seattle area.
In the image to the left, we see Mr.
Skip Yowell in 2007 (he's on the right). He is in the company
of his old friend and fellow gear-pioneer George Marks, who was
the co-founder of Sierra Designs
(along with Bob Swanson). This image is courtesy of Mr. Marks
(who is the man on the left).
SAD NEWS: Mr. Yowell passed away on October 19, 2015. The cause was lung cancer. He was 69 years old. Yowell retired in 2010 as JanSport's vice president of global public relations. However, he made appearances for the company until January of 2015. His cousin and company founder Murray Pletz had left JanSport in 1982 while Murray's ex-wife Jan Lewis retired in 2005 to the Seattle area.
Mr. Yowell was longtime friends with the Whittakers and the guides up at Mt. Rainier. There is a climber's memorial hidden in the woods at Ashford (link), where the two big guide services are based. Part of the memorial is a 12 ft. high metal archway framed in around 25 old ice axes, mostly classic MSR axes (link). Here's an axe inscribed to Skip. To the left of his axe is one for World-famed skier Dave Mahre (a Yakima-born local) and above that one for famed NW writer/photographer Ira Spring. The two guides services are Rainier Mountain Guides (RMI), and International Mountain Guides. RMI is rooted in the twin Whittaker brothers of expeditionary fame. Lou was (is) the main name at RMI, whereas his brother Jim Whittaker ran REI.
GEAR INNOVATION: Staying Abreast of the Electronic Age
Not a company to rest on its laurels, by 2010 JanSport introduced a line of packs like no others ever seen in the History of Gear. These packs are manufactured pre-wired for the iPOD, and are named the "LiveWire" series. I was sent one to test, and ended up using it as a photographer's kit bag, for which it seemed comfortable and well-suited. ..
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