Himage1 In 1867, when James W. Woods was four years old, the Dominion of Canada was born, three British colonies confederated into one vast nation w/ enormous regions still to be discovered and explored. Woods was surely inspired by the youthfulness and possibility of his times, and his own early years were as rife w/ opportunity. In 1885, he established himself as an outfitter of canvas supplies to lumbermen in the Ottawa Valley, and his fortunes would continue to be closely linked w/ those of his country in the decades to follow.
By 1895, James W. had established his own manufacturing facility and was producing tents, sleeping bags, and canvas bags of all kinds. He had invented a new light canvas so effective in its waterproofing that it was not long before his company’s reputation was international. Woods Canada was chief supplier of canvas to British forces during the Boer War (1899–1902), outfitting troops w/ everything from tents and clothing to horse blankets. Back home in Canada, the nation was expanding westward, and Woods was leading the grand adventure. The Klondike Gold Rush had begun in 1896 w/ the discovery of gold at Bonanza Creek in the Yukon, and for the next few years, the area was flush w/ “stampeders” carrying packsacks manufactured by Woods, and which were stocked w/ Woods tents, sleeping bags, mackinaw sweaters, camp stoves, and more. In 1898, notable geologist and mining consultant Joseph Burr Tyrrell wrote to James W. Woods to “testify to the excellence of the Eiderdown sleeping bag obtained from you,” which he declared “the most comfortable bed that I have ever had in the field.” Through James W.’s affiliations w/ both the National Geographic Society and the Royal Geographic Society in the U.K., Woods Canada outfitted many of the most important exploratory ventures of the early 20th century, including the Roosevelt Field Expedition through Central Asia and the first ascent of Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, in 1925. Himage1
Earlier, Woods parka’s tents and sleeping bags had been on board the ship Gjoa when Roald Amundsen and his crew successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in 1906, ending more than 400 years of failed attempts by such legendary mariners as Sir John Franklin. (“There are two times a man is happy when he’s up here,” Amundsen would say of the North Pole. “When his belly is full of hot liquid and when he’s in his sleeping bag.”) During his time in the Canadian Arctic, Amundsen also established the location of the North Magnetic Pole and lived for two winters among the Inuit people in what is now Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, learning about polar survival from Inuit technological adaptations. The knowledge Amundsen acquired during his time in Canada would prove essential to his success in 1911 leading the first team to reach the South Pole.

Himage1 With news of Amundsen’s Arctic journey and those of others at the time, the Canadian government was awakening to vital issues of Arctic sovereignty. Part of their response was to underline their claim on the region w/ Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s sponsorship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition in 1913. The expedition was the first of its kind, a multidisciplinary study of the Arctic and its peoples. Led by Vilhjalmur Steffansson, the Canadian-born son of Icelandic immigrants, the five-year mission was not w/out its perils, w/ 17 crew members lost. However results of the CAE were enormously significant, including discovery of three new Canadian islands, correction of centuries-old mapping errors, the uncovering of mineral deposits, and immense archeological, biological and geological surveys. The CAE’s observations were captured on sound recordings, nearly 4,000 photographs and 9,000 feet of motion picture film. Well-documented in this collection are several images of Woods canvas products, including thedown-filled Woods Arctic Parka, which had been developed specially for the mission. The Arctic parka from the 1913 expedition was the prototype for the type of extreme weather jacket that is so ubiquitous on Canadian city streets a century later.
The Canadian Arctic Expedition crew arrived home far removed from knowledge of the First World War, which had been embroiling much of the rest of the world since 1914, but the war was another important mission for Woods. James W. Woods was Lieutenant-General of the Governor-General’s Foot Guards regiment, and his eldest son, John R. Woods, was killed overseas in 1917. Their family business was a supplier of tents and other goods for Allied soldiers in both World Wars and created the first gas masks for the Canadian army. The reach of Woods into Canadian life was so extensive that during World War Two, the company published an advertisement requesting customers’ patience while Woods’ production was tied up in supporting the war effort. “Right now we have a date w/ Mars,” the ad stated, “But they’ll come a day . . . The pine-scented air will be the more bracing in the warmth of your new Woods Arctic-Down Insulated Parka.” It wasn’t just polar explorers who swore by the brand, but also ordinary people for whom Canada’s vast wilderness was accessible thanks to Woods outdoor gear. Woods’ catalogues advertised their sleeping bags (called “sleeping robes”) as used by “porch sleepers, fishermen, campers, hunters, explorers, aviators, prospectors, sourdoughs.” Even Ernest Hemingway had one, and he demonstrated his devotion to it in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, making a Woods sleeping robe a significant plot point and also the setting for his most famous love scene.

Himage1 “We are open to competition in everything that is possible to be made out of canvas,” declared the 1915 Woods catalogue, and Woods’ inventory over the years would show this claim to be no boast. Their tents included those for ordinary campers, for children, for backyard garden parties, carnivals, and even black tents for moving picture shows. Woods manufactured bags for newsboys, mail carriers, and railway laundry. They made piano covers, horse blankets, a canvas motor garage, life preservers, golf bags, and bags for hockey equipment. They were proclaimed to be the largest flag manufacturers in Canada.

By 1982, there were few places left where Woods and Canadians hadn’t yet travelled, but more extreme adventure w/ Woods was still to be had. In that year when Laurie Skreslet became the first Canadian to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Woods was a significant contributor to the expedition. The company supplied Skreslet and the Canadian team w/ tents, sleeping bags, and the blue Arctic parkas they would wear at the world’s greatest heights. At that time, Woods continued to have enormous brand recognition, remaining Canada’s dominant manufacturer of apparel, tents and sleeping bags, and having expanded w/ strength into U.S. and Asian markets.

As the company’s legacy continues in the 21st century, there is more of the Woods story to be told. The Woods legacy belongs now to the contemporary winter explorer who appreciates the quality and attention to detail that have defined Woods products from the very beginning, and who understands that a strong focus on innovation is what’s truest to the company’s heritage. Woods apparel today combines the latest in outerwear technology w/ the tradition started by the first Arctic parka 100 years ago and, as it ever was, Woods is the story of Canada. Himage1
References: Amundsen, Capt. Roald. To the North Magnetic Pole and Through the Northwest Passage. Seattle, Washington: The Shorey Book Store, 1967. Facsimile reproduction. Brown, Stephen. The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012. “Canadian Arctic Expedition,” Gateway to Aboriginal Heritage. Canadian Museum of Civilization. Web page. Cook, Maria. “A Piece of Ottawa History is on the Market.” Ottawa Citizen, 12 March 2012. C3. Earthy, David, former President and Managing Director of Woods. Personal interview, 4 January 2013.Earthy, David. “Woods Canada Limited.” March 2008. Company history. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 2003. Mandel, Miriam B. “Note on Jordan’s Sleeping Bag.” The Hemingway Society Newsletter No. 29, January 1995. Northern People, Northern Knowledge: The Story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913–1918. Canadian Museum of Civilization. Web page. Skreslet, Laurie, w/ Elizabeth MacLeod. To the Top of Everest. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2001. Struszik, Edward, and Mike Beedell. Northwest Passage: The Quest for an Arctic Route to the East. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1991. Woods catalogues and advertisements.