The Origins of Mackintosh

This month I am highlighting the invention of a new product in the 19th century. Have you ever used the term mackintosh to describe a coat? I’ve used the term myself and was curious about the origins.

Jordan Marsh Mackintosh
No. 64. The Melba, a very fine all-wool mackintosh with wool plaid lining and velvet collar, very full sweep of cajie and skirt; colors, blue, black, green, and brown. . . . $5. No. 65. Misses all-wool double texture mackintosh, two full capes and velvet collar; colors,blue and brown mixture $3.75.  Jordan, Marsh and Company, 1897, Winterthur Museum Library via Wikimedia Commons.

In this case, the product is actually mackintosh fabric which would be used in constructing the coat, although today the term is often synonymous with raincoat. The fabric is rubber coated and prevents rain water from penetrating its surface. In the Journal of Education in 1907, contributor R. W. Wallace wrote,

“If Charles Goodyear – the father of the rubber industry in America – could visit one of the great rubber factories of the country to-day, he would be astounded at the phenomenal development of the industry […]. To so many uses is rubber put to-day, that the standing problem in the business world on both sides of the Atlantic is how to get enough of the raw material to meet the ever-enlarging demand for rubber goods. There are indispensable to modern life in a thousand ways, contributing to its protection and comfort in more forms than one could easily catalog.”[1]

One of these wonderful, new uses, of course, was in the making of a waterproof material known as “mackintosh.” The development is largely attributed to Scottish chemist, Charles Macintosh (no “k”), in 1823, after experimenting with the waste products of Glasgow’s gas works and dissolving india rubber with naptha coal-tar.[2] The dissolved rubber was then used to coat the fabric to make it waterproof. The early product was not so user-friendly, as when it was tailored the needle punctured the fabric which would allow rain to penetrate, the oil present in wool cloth deteriorated the rubber, and it was not as adaptable to changes in temperature. However, after further experiments and the introduction of vulcanized rubber in 1839, many of these earlier problems were solved.

Mackintosh fabric could certainly be used for outerwear, but early examples from the FFF timeline also show the fabric used for a bag. Harper’s Bazar from June 1886, features a waterproof a “foot tourist’s knapsack.” Bazar advises its readers that the knapsack is “thoroughly water-proof, made of mackintosh or rubber cloth, with natural leather mountings and straps.”[3] Here the fabric “mackintosh” is really interchangeable with “rubber cloth.” Today, I can’t imagine that “rubber cloth” would be used as a kind of marketing jargon, but in 1886, rubber was still a relatively new material with exciting end uses.

tourist knapsack
Tourist Knapsack (far left). Harper’s Bazar, vol. XIX, no. 25, June 19, 1886, 400.

An earlier article from Harper’s Bazar in 1876, is not a fan of the rubberized material. The author writes, “The only healthy waterproofs are those of cloth treated in a way which, while rendering them almost impervious to rain, still admits the escape of the insensible perspiration.”[4] Understandably, the material wasn’t as breathable as a textile that did not have rubber adhered to it, and in the author’s opinion, there was no existing material of yet that could do this. The certainly provides a different perspective from the advertisements for mackintosh as the time. The article continues,

“The only situation in which India rubber coats or cloaks can be tolerated is in riding or driving in the rain. Or they may be taken over the arm on a summer’s ramble in the country, and worn only during a shower, and taken off again at once. As dust-coats they are worse than useless. I wonder how many deaths a year may be attributed to the wearing of these nasty India rubber coats and cloaks.”[5]

I’m not sure whether or not others felt this strongly against mackintosh fabric, but the opinion in this article is very clear! I think this speaks to the development of a new material and the fact that further experiments were still needed to ultimately create the more breathable version we wear today. The term “mackintosh” is used later on in this article, but it is evident that a coat made of this fabric could go by many names: mackintosh, India rubber coat, and waterproofs.

In researching other early mentions of the fabric, it is not as prevalent as some other styles and materials. I think because this fabric is reserved as specifically rain-wear, it is not featured as often as other kinds of versatile fabrics in fashion magazines.

LAdies Home Journal
The Mackintosh dress skirt and cape. The Ladies’ Home Journal, vol. 15, September 1898, 30.

Still, there are mentions of the fabric in a positive and not solely-utilitarian light, like in the advertisement at the top of this post from the department store Jordan, Marsh and Company, and the one above from The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1898, which touts the mackintosh dress skirt and matching cape as comfortable and silk-lined. Another fashionable interpretation can be found in the ad below that promises “handsomely made” black or blue mackintoshes with a plaid lining.

MAckintosh for Ladies
Mackintoshes for Ladies. The Ladies’ Home Journal, vol. 13, September 1896, 21.

Mackintosh today is sometimes used interchangeably with the term balmacaan, but mackintosh actually refers to the fabric itself, while balmacaan is a specific style of raglan sleeve, loose, overcoat that could be made with mackintosh fabric. It is interesting to see how fashion terms first enter our vocabulary and how often the meaning is adapted to suit the retail purposes of the time throughout the years.

So if you’ve ever wondered about the term “Mackintosh,” and how it first entered the fashion lexicon, now you know!

 

-Danielle Morrin

 

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[1] R. W. Wallace, “Industries,” Journal of Education, vol. 66, no. 17, October 31, 2017, www.jstor.org/stable/42811010 (accessed November 16, 2018), 466.

[2] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Charles Macintosh,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Macintosh (accessed November 20, 2018).

[3] Harper’s Bazar, vol. XIX, no. 25, June 19, 1886, 408.

[4] Harper’s Bazar, vol. XI, no. 6, February 5, 1876, 85.

[5] Ibid.

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