Although it’s the point in the spring season where students are swapping their trusty winter footwear for ballet flats and Sperrys, the iconic Bean Boot has been a staple in the typical Polar Bear wardrobe for the past several years (much to the chagrin of fashion columnist Evan Horwitz ’15), and has recently experienced growing popularity on college campuses everywhere. 

What is it about these seemingly basic boots that has caused them to strike the fancy of a generation? The Orient decided to go the source—L.L. Bean Manufacturing in Brunswick—to find out. 
The factory is just a few miles from campus, a few turns off McKeen Street.

“We welcome the popularity,” said Mac McKeever, spokesperson for L.L. Bean. “I was in Manhattan recently, struck and amazed by the number of people that were wearing Bean Boots, just on the street. I think there is a shift among younger folks back to this trend of Americana. We have this boot that was designed and developed really for hunting, to keep your feet warm and dry, but it’s also garnered favor with folks on college campuses, folks in urban settings, and in the fashion community. So I think that speaks volumes about the boot and the fact that its design has changed very little over 100 years.”

This original design was first conceived in 1911, when company founder Leon Leonwood Bean—fed up with getting wet, cold feet on hunting trips—decided to stitch rubber bottoms to the leather uppers of his boots in a quest for waterproof comfort.

“He really was a man ahead of his time,” said McKeever. “He started what truly revolutionized the outdoor footwear industry.”
Bean’s initial efforts to market the boots did not immediately meet with success.

“He got 100 orders,” said McKeever. “90 of the first 100 failed. The rubber separated from the leather. And, true to his word, he gave back all the money, went back to the drawing board and corrected the problem. It almost bankrupted him refunding everyone’s money, and had it, none of this would be here today.”

Royce Haines has been Head Supervisor of Brunswick Manufacturing for two years and has worked for L.L. Bean for almost three decades.
 He said that although the business has expanded greatly throughout the years, all of the boots are still assembled in Brunswick, while the rubber bottoms are crafted in a smaller facility in Lewiston. The company currently sends catalogues to over 160 outlets and has international retail stores in Canada, China and Japan.

“We have a very heavy presence in Japan,” said Haines. “About two dozen outlets. They love the fun colors.”

Although all models of the boot are based off of the original, time-tested design, L.L. Bean has expanded its height and color options in the past few years to cater to the growing tastes and demands of consumers. In addition to the traditional tan and dark brown options, the company has dabbled in shades of red, blue, green, black and white.

The inside of the Brunswick factory is a well-oiled machine of Bean Boot production. 

To this day, very little of the manufacturing process is automated. Workers could be seen crouched over sewing machines or cutting leather by hand during the tour of the factory. While we were navigating our way through the room, an employee stopped Haines for feedback on a minor issue with some boot eyelets.

“It’s still a little rough here, see?” he said, offering up a leather boot upper as example and running his finger over the metal eyelets to demonstrate his point.

A small portion of the factory is set aside entirely for repairs, a testament to the company’s 100-percent satisfaction guarantee. Customers who are not satisfied with their boots can exchange them for a new pair anytime at no charge. For a small fee, they can also send in their worn-out boots for repair.

“We’re one of the only companies out there that really lets the customer decide what satisfaction is,” said McKeever. “The interesting thing about the boots is that people fall in love with them—they become kind of like Linus with his security blanket and they don’t want to let them go, because the leather has molded to their leg, or they’ve become emotionally attached to them or they just love the comfort of these boots.”

“In the world today, repurposing, recycling has become a trend,” said Haines. “It’s nice to see people taking advantage of that.”

At the repair station, bins are stacked high with boots that have undergone all ranges of wear. 
“Oh wow, look at these, these have been around for a while,” said Haines, gesturing to a pair where only the worn leather uppers remained intact. 

Each pair of boots has an address tag; they hail from all over the country, from New York City to Ashland, Va.

At one point, McKeever shared an anecdote about a man who left his Bean Boots on the dock at his camp. A big storm blew the boots into the water, and he thought they were lost. Several days later the man went snorkeling, and his boots were on the lake floor waiting for him.

“Every pair of boots has a story,” said McKeever. “Everyone loves them—what’s not to love?”