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Utah State University's Special Collections division wants your junk mail. No, really — a bevy of shelves in the Merrill-Cazier Library's lower level are now home to 2,700 catalogs from L.L. Bean, REI, Coleman and over 400 more outdoor gear companies.

It's become Clint Pumphrey's go-to line: "I collect people's junk mail." Pumphrey is the manuscript curator at USU's Special Collections and Archives, a role that entails managing the school's historical document collections, most of which relate to the history of its surrounding region of northern Utah and southern Idaho. But ever since administrators from the university's Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD) program approached the library in 2018 with a request to build an archive relating to a unique curriculum that preps students to make gear, he's been gathering catalogs and magazines that date back to the 1960s, too.

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To track down catalogs, Pumphrey (left) and Anderson (right) rely on company founders, early executives and designers who were integral to the creation of specific products that have since become iconic. Of course, eBay comes in handy too.
USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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In addition to catalogs from the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch and L.L. Bean, the Special Collections division is now home to stacks of old issues of magazines such as Backpacker, Summit and more.
USU / Outdoor Archive

Nowadays, company promotions beam into our inboxes, where the common fate is instant banishment to a spam folder or an eternity of remaining unread. But in the not-so-distant past, an announcement of a new season's camping equipment showed up in your real mailbox as a well-designed, photo-filled book folded and stapled down the middle. Rescued and subsequently digitized, they're revealing: decades-old Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs expose the brand's now-forgotten outdoor roots, while those for Snow Leopard and Cloudveil eulogize companies that no longer exist.

Just about every cover, it turns out, makes for a great Instagram post. Chase Anderson, the program coordinator for OPDD, has given the archive a second life that few if any such collections get by posting cover scans to @outdoorrecarchive at a moment when curator accounts and vintage outdoor ephemera are en vogue. "We need to reach people where they're looking for design inspiration," he says.

Anderson notes that most fans of the account aren't directly connected to camping or climbing — "We have a big hypebeast community," he says — a detail that speaks to the timeless universality of the outdoors. It's that transcendent and, okay, cool quality that allows a 40-year-old catalog cover to serve student researchers and Insta fiends at the same time.

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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive

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Archived catalog covers prove playfulness and whimsy are nothing new; just witness that tent-happy Sierra Designs husky, circa 1977 — or REI’s pre-Photoshop rendering of Old Man Winter pulling back the curtain on Spring 1980.
USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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Perhaps more importantly, these images depict the evolution of adventure-ready gear — it wasn’t so long ago that backpacking packs had bulky, external metal frames, or that wool sweaters counted as technical ski outerwear — and the lifespans of the companies that influence and shape outdoor culture.
USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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Snow Lion no longer exists, but it isn’t hard to imagine the brand developing a cult following based on its imagery alone. Meanwhile, covers from Chouinard Equipment and Great Pacific Iron Works are historical breadcrumbs that showcase the roots of one of today’s best-known outdoor companies, Patagonia.
USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive
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USU / Outdoor Archive