Vintage Tents by the History of Gear Project

A very brief overview

What kind of tents/fabrics/designs did the early expeditionary climbers and explorers use? Nylon, the key modern fabric, was not invented until 1935, patented in 1938, but did not enter consumer gear manufacturing until just after WW II, with companies such as Holubar Mountaineering and GERRY Mountain Sports.

The "Whymper Tent." In 1862 the famed British climber Edward Whymper (1840-1911) devised a tent that was to see wide use and many variations/improvments over many decades. His original tent was an big, 4-man A-frame, with two crossed poles and a climbing rope as a ridgeline, all canvas, with a floor, and really heavy, over 22 pounds, and that was when it was dry! A modified version of this called the Meade was used in 1924 by the ill-fated climbers Mallory and Irvine on Mt. Everest. Whymper's climbing credentials included the first ascent of the Matterhorn. The Whymper tents were seen in English catalogs as late as 1960!

During the Civil War, Union commanders gave soldiers tarps for shelter, which soldiers could stretch between two rifles, thus making a "pup tent." The naming was derisive, the tents were so small and miserable that soldiers would say grown dogs couldn't fit, only pups! And in my early days as a Boy Scout, indeed our pup tents were dark, cramped, leaked, let in bugs, and worse.

The "Mummery" tent was the lightweight climber's tent of the time: it was another pup tent, but dramatically lighter, in significant ways similar to modern ultralight tarps using hiking poles for support. Mummery tents used oiled silk for fabric and two ice axes (alpenstocks) for support, and various guy ropes and tent stakes as needed. The design was floorless, but usualy a separate ground sheet was used. Fred Mummery (1855-1895) came out with his tents some 20 years after Whymper.

The Mummery design was in use when Mummery, a well-known mountaineer, attempted Nanga Parbat in 1895, and died there at age 40 in an avalanche without reaching the peak, which was not climbed until 1953. The tent itself, in various sizes and other fabrics like canvas, continued in use up until around 1950, when strong designs in nylon like the GERRY Himalayan tent soon superseded it, the GERRY tent was used in Edmund Hillary's famous climb of Mt. Everest in 1953, but so were some 2-man Whymper-Meade tents for the higher camps.. It was the crossover moment of the old and new in the history of gear. The Mummery, Whymper and Meade tents were beginning to pass into history. Ahead was a mighty wave of new tent designs and yet-to-be-invented space age fabrics.

Our illustration is from the Karakoram in 1908, showing a woman who gained some fame, Fanny Bullock Workman. She's standing beside her modified Mummery tent. The design details are not apparent, but clearly it's supported by much more than just two ice axes!

 


 


WHO GETS CREDIT FOR THE FIRST "DOME TENT" ???

History of Gear Credit #1 --First modern "Dome Tent" with modern nylons and bent poles. This was well before the famous Jansport dome tents came on the market in about 1971.

"The Dome Tent. We, at A16, called it the "A16 Dome Tent." Real original name! (when you are first, you can call it anything you want!)... It was made in a two and four man version. ..Did I invent it? I prefer to describe it as "innovation." Every thing had been around in one form or another. I just reassembled them in a new concept. The concept of bent poles was first produced by "Thermos." Yes, the "Thermos Bottle" people. Their version was made of cotton. The poles were solid fiberglass rods with aluminum tube sleeves as joints. A two man version weighed over 11 pounds. The poles were sprung up inside the tent canopy, on diagonal corners. The side door was zippered over the full curve of the tent. Thermos promoted it as a backpacking tent, but it was a small tent, and too much weight."..... EDITOR: the famed tent designer/guru Bill Moss is credited on the Bill Moss website with designing the Pop Tent in 1955, and licensing it to King Seeley/Thermos by 1959-60. The Pop Tent was certainly a "dome tent," but acros the Pacific, a company named Croster in Japan claims that they invented the "World's First" dome tent in 1959. My vote probably goes to Bill Moss, based on the information I've been able to amass.

Back to Andy Drollinger-- "In the early 1950s, the old timers such as Thermos and Coleman had to be dragged scratching and fighting away from cotton and into synthetics [eg. [nylon fabrics]. After all, they were the Kings. No new innovations in their empires."

"The Birth of the A16 Dome Tent: Somehow or other, I crossed paths with Jack Stephenson of Warmlite, another early lightweight tent maker [using a space-age design called the elliptical arc]. He lived in Northridge, CA [fairly near Mr. Drollinger]....He used waterproof coated two ounce [nylon] fabric with his poles on the inside. Easton Aluminum made Jack's poles by draw-forming. No rain fly, so he provided a mickey mouse vent hole in the top to get rid of body accumulated moisture..." (Note 1: Easton Aluminum Company is better-known for producing the first aluminum baseball bats! It's owner Jim Eastman was a friend of both Drolinger and Stephenson. Note #2: Wayne Gregory remembers both Drolinger and Stephenson attending a Sierra Club function in Balboa Park in 1965, as fellow vendors. Note: if you need a tent pole repair, one of Easton's original employees runs a pole company in Vancouver, WA, "Tent Pole Technologies." It's owner has done several great repairs for me.Easton tent poles

"I took a step back to the old cotton tents with an external covering rain fly. I made the tent from breatheable nylon... the poles were on the outside of the tent, held up the tent, and were covered with the rainfly...the original poles were hollow arrow shafts...This was the original use of bent poles to hold up the tent form and make a breathing space clearance between the tent canopy and the fly."

An interesting sidelight into the world of Patenting is recalled, "At A16 I received a letter from a lawyer telling me to cease and desist in using the segmented tent poles in the dome tents. His client had filed a patent for a portable radar reflector using similar poles...I chose to ignore him and I didn't hear from him again."

Regarding a special version of the A16 Dome made with all-mosquito netting canopy under the waterproof fly: "[We sold the tent] to game rangers in the elephant areas of Africa. They loved it! The elephants thought they were big rocks and wouldn't step on them. Inside the bug-proof tent it was like sleeping on a screen porch!"

Note: by the time of the 1975 A16 catalog, this original dome was being called the "Half-Dome," and came in 2 1/2 or 4 person versions. A key design feature was the "spring alloy aluminum poles." Weight was 5 1/2 pounds for the "2 1/2" person version. Prices were $179 and $199... The A16 company had grown to a staff of 24 people, headed by Mic Mead. (added note: Mr. Drollinger left A16 during the early 1970s).

See below for History of Gear books!


Please Note: All Material here, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of OregonPhotos.com. ...The images are reworked scans of Mr. Drollinger's copy of a 288 page book he helped create named "The Backpacker's Digest" with his friend C.R. Learn and Anne S. Tallman ..... Note: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.... Disclaimer: The material on this page represents only the reports of the correspondents and my own interpretation of those reports. In many cases "History of Gear" material is difficult to independently verify and that is a "given" in this type of research. It is important to keep in mind that the events, gear, and personages reported in the "History of Gear" lie far in the past, in some cases as much as 60 years in the past. It is common that even people who were within the same company so many years ago will remember/interpret happenings in quite different ways.

 


Remarkably different has been the business course of the small custom gearmaker Stephenson's Warmlite, which has survived, and never changed its name or ownership in some 50 years of doing business! Up until recently, even its Business Manager was unchanged! Update: Jack Stephenson passed away in early 2017. Warmlite was bought by his niece Kim Stephenson Cunningham, who is busy re-establishing it in Fort Collins, Colorado (April 2019 news).


BOOK ALERTS: My first book in a series about The History of Gear was about Frostline Kits. Please visit my FROSTLINE PAGE (click here) for a link to order it, or to view a free 15 page PDF preview. The second book was released May 20, 2008 and is titled, "GERRY, To Live in the Mountains" (click here). The third book of the series was released in November 2009 and covers the story of Holubar Mountaineering. Since that time, I have published two additional books, one about Mountain Safety Research of Seattle (MSR), and the other about Stephenson's Warmlite Equipment....Later, I will pull together several of the smaller gear companies into one book, among them will be A16...... Please Note that my six books are also available as inexpensive PDF downloads ($15 apiece, direct from me, contact: oldgear@Oregonphotos.com)


 

Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935-The Present, 45+ pages, five history of gear books published, and ever-growing!

Kelty Packs, a predecessor, inspiration and competitor in the pack market... A16 and Kelty's founders were both based in Southern California, as was another aeronautical engineer-turned gear-maker, Jack Stephenson

Stephenson's Warmlite. Mr. Stephenson and Mr. Drollinger were cohorts in Southern California and contemporaries in the market in the 1960s


 

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Page last revised 05/12/2020