When I awoke this morning, I knew that I wouldn’t be out of bed for long. Outside my apartment window, the icicles looked like little daggers hanging from the roof, as if somehow trying to be a visual reminder of how lethally cold it was outside. It is Saturday, thank heavens, and this means no scraping the sheet of ice from the windows of my car as I do nearly everyday, all the while losing the battle to the icy wind. The wind’s strategy, it seems, is simply to bite away at my face with its countless invisible incisors until I can no longer stand it and simply give up. I am indoors, and for this I am glad. But even with my thermostat set to high, a languid cold still settles through my apartment, somehow having made its way through all the insulation and seals on my doors and windows. I go downstairs and, shivering slightly, make some hot cereal and then I am back in bed with some books and the remote—not before I throw an extra blanket on my bed. Not just any blanket, however, but the blanket.
It must have been days like this that often covered the Hudson Bay, where fur traders would go about their business and trade with the Native Americans. Those days probably had clouds that were gray and so thick that they blocked out much of the light of day. There must have been similar winds that blew inexorably and licked away any heat in their path—from anyone or anything that generated it. On days like this, colonists must have silently reconsidered their decision to have come here. On days like this, any old blanket just won’t do. You’d need a thick blanket. Not unnecessarily heavy, but substantial nonetheless, with every thread of it having a purpose. The kind of blanket that’s made out of wool so thick and luxurious that when you hold it in your hands you’d have a hard time feeling your fingers on the other side of the cloth. You also need a blanket that’s well made— one that will last generations—yes, generations—with no bits of loose thread to unravel or snag. On days like today, you would pay anything for such a blanket and it would be worth every penny.
This blanket is not merely a bone chilled fantasy; it has existed for hundreds of years. Technologies like nylon and rayon have yet to match the warmth and pragmatism of natural wool, tightly woven into a barrier against the cold that is known simply as the Hudson’s Bay Blanket or, more specifically, the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. It has been used since the days of the colonies and it’s still being made—a testament, perhaps, to how great a blanket it really is. You may have never given a second thought to the blankets on your bed or in your closet, and you very well may never have desired something as ordinary as a blanket, but after you’ve seen one of these, you’ll understand why you want one.
Some people never hear of the Hudson’s Bay Blanket. They go through their lives never huddling under its enveloping warmth. Perhaps it’s because they never needed it (perhaps those in warm climates fall under this category) or because no one ever enlightened them about the blanket. I would have been such an individual if it hadn’t been for cold mornings in my 10th grade social studies class.
My teacher, Mr. “Maddog” Meletic, would often complain about the world while we were doing our worksheets. He’d complain about the dearth of decent A/V materials with which to teach history. He’d complain about how poor some books are that teach it, and sometimes he’d complain about “today’s” products. It was on one such particularly cold morning, when the school’s heating hadn’t quite kicked in, that he talked about, of all things … blankets. Perhaps it was the cold and the talk of warm blankets that pushed his rant from background babble to the center of my attention. That part I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is him going on for about half an hour or more about a blanket. I was enchanted, and it seemed like many of my classmates were as well, for their faces were not buried in their worksheet, but they were staring intently, listening to Mr. Maletic talk about a blanket. Thinking back on it now, maybe he was not simply ranting about a blanket, but rather he was trying to teach us American history, because, as I would later discover, the Hudson’s Bay Blanket is steeped in history.
Among the many items traded in the middle of the eighteenth century, the point blanket was among the more heavily traded items. Point blankets were made of wool, came in a variety of colors, and were often identified by a heavy band of color, known formally as the header, near each end. What defines a point blanket, though, was the number of short black markings, woven or sewn into the cloth that identified the size of the finished blanket. Larger blankets contained more points and were therefore more valuable in trade. The points were a convenience since they immediately identified the value of a blanket to a prospective buyer and likely simplified complex negotiations between Europeans and Native Americans. Canadian furs from animals such as the beaver were in demand in Europe and were used for fashionable hats and coats. Fur was one of the items that Native Americans often traded with Europeans in exchange for a manufactured item like the blanket. Among the companies that traded fur in North America was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was founded on a charter in 1670 in England. The company, which still does business in Canada, is one of the oldest in existence today.