Substance of Style: The Mackintosh

The History of the Iconic Mackintosh Rain Coat

Read up on the Mackintosh (or “mac,” for short), and you’ll come across plenty of praise. It’s a coat with heritage. It’s traditional, even nostalgic, yet somehow ever-contemporary. The coat is marked by its simplicity and its timeless design. And while all of these words do pique our interest, there’s only one that comes to mind when we’re faced with sheets of icy rain on a cold day in Chicago: Waterproof.

In fact, the Mackintosh is completely waterproof, a feature that not all rainwear can boast. The history of the Mackintosh begins not with the coat, but with the waterproof, rubberized fabric from which it’s made, patented in 1823 by Charles Macintosh, a chemist in Glasgow.

The History of the Mackintosh

At the time, the only defense against Great Britain’s often daunting weather was oiled cloth. Across the pond in South America, the practice of coating cloth with rubber latex had been around for hundreds of years, but the latex needed to bring that practice to Europe was too unstable to be shipped. Which brings us to Charles Macintosh, whose invention was not only born of necessity, but also from a sort of one-man’s-trash innovation.

LEFT: Charles Macintosh. RIGHT: Gas light standards in Charing Cross (1890).

You see, as early as 1792 gas lights were popping up on the streets of Glasgow, followed by the formation of the Glasgow Gas Light Co. in 1817. Charles contracted to buy the waste products generated by the gas company, from which he was able to extract ammonia to be used in his father’s dyeing company, leaving him with a mix of organic liquids, coal tar naphtha. Still following? In an 1818 article, J. Syme proposed that such a substance could be used as a rubber solvent, noting that the advent of gas lighting meant it would be not only cheap, but also readily available.

After some trial and error, Macintosh discovered a way to use the rubber to create his new ‘Mackintosh Fabric,’ produced by spreading the liquid, natural rubber between two fabrics, then heating and pressing them together.

The coat made of this new fabric garned massive attention across Britain and, despite some early trials in the company’s formative years, was quickly adopted as the British Army Coat for WWI and WWII and also the overcoat uniform for British Rail. (Read a full history here.) Which brings us to today, back to that rainy day in Chicago — and a trip to Haberdash to pick up your new ‘Mack.’

100 Secrets of MACKINTOSH

Last Fall, Mackintosh began releasing a series of videos, titled 100 Secrets of MACKINTOSH. Brief, stylish videos featuring brand and thought leaders from across the fashion community. Click here to see the entire set.

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