by Ian McDonald
There are probably as many reasons for collecting GWG memorabilia as there are collectors. I myself fell into collecting (in a modest way) when I went searching for no-longer-made Red Strap jeans to wear to a reunion in Edmonton with some high school friends from the 50s, a time when teenaged boys wore them practically as a uniform. After a couple of false starts, I eventually scored a pair from a fellow who put them up for auction on eBay. Subsequently I unexpectedly turned up a couple of other pairs that actually date from my youth and I have added a few articles of various kinds to my collection as I have discovered them.
Although my particular interest was—and is—the clothing itself, there are many other collectible items from GWG: advertisements, give-aways, catalogues and promotional materials that together constitute an extraordinary record of one of Canada's iconic manufacturing firms. As with most collectibles, uniqueness, age, quality and condition are the primary criteria for acquisition.
Actual GWG denim clothing - especially jeans, cowboy style, barn jackets and overalls—is the easiest to find, primarily in forgotten basements and attics, at yard sales and on-line auctions. While it is not difficult to find clothing from the 60s onwards, the real prizes come from the 50s and earlier. These are much less common, and consequently attract both more attention and higher prices. The oldest, and most expensive, GWG article I have seen is a "new old stock" pair of Red Strap overalls for sale on eBay with a starting bid of $3,000. They did not sell. Incidentally, the price shown on the original label was $1.85!
On-line sellers frequently overestimate the age of their goods, describing a piece of clothing easily identifiable to the practised eye as 1970s or newer as being from the 50s or even 40s. Any would-be purchaser would do well to consult the identification guide for proof of age. As a rule, labels are the surest identification measure, but details of manufacturing—rivets vs. bar tacks; brass buttons vs. dull finished ones; button fly vs. zipper; Snobak vs. Buckskin denim; bilingual vs. English-only labelling—can also be an accurate guide to age. GWG clothing catalogues are also invaluable here; published from the late 30s at least through the early 80s, they are a mine of information and detail, as is magazine advertising.
Potential buyers of GWG items should be aware that many clothing pieces put up for auction or offered at yard sales are of unusual sizes—more often very small than very big—and, since it is likely that at least some collectors like to wear occasionally what they have acquired, the more common or popular mid-range sizes tend to be more highly valued. Nevertheless, a very rare item even in an unusual size can command a substantial price as well as satisfy for its intrinsic interest. This is the case, for example, with the label patch on an oversized pair of High Rigger jeans that shows in fine detail a so-called high rigger from a logging crew topping off a towering evergreen.
In addition to almanacs, catalogues and clothing—and this runs the gamut from garments made for prisoners-of-war to baseball uniforms to leather jackets and dress shirts—advertising materials such as point-of-sale cardboard cut-outs, ash trays and pens surface in various places. Among the most commonly-found items are six-inch wooden rulers with GWG advertising printed on them; for years these were attached to the belt loops of jeans. In the 80s these were briefly replaced by ten-inch plastic rulers with both imperial and metric markings.
No collector can fail to be impressed by the quality of the items acquired or the variety of detail observable in pieces of GWG-made clothing in particular. Pocket shapes and sizes, belt loops and suspender buttons, thread colours and types of denim all changed over the years. It would be interesting to know why, and why also some GWG brands persisted for decades—notably Cowboy King and Red Strap—while such brands as Golden West, High Rigger and Graham disappeared soon after their introduction.
In denim clothing manufacturing as elsewhere, imitation seems to be the best form of flattery. This is evidenced by the fact that, after GWG stopped making Red Strap jeans in about 1990, at least three other Canadian manufacturers produced "knock offs" with the iconic red hammer loop (although not the copyrighted label): Big B, Action West and J.B. Goodhue. But none of them established the paramount place in Canadian-made work clothing that was held for decades by Edmonton's Great Western Garment Company.