Today, the distinctive design of point blanket strips has been used as part of the HBC Collection brand on products ranging from umbrellas to smart phone cases. The point blanket has become an icon of Canadian style, often featured in Canadian home and style magazines and blogs. (See alsoFashion Design in Canada.)
DID YOU KNOW?
The most iconic Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket colours — white with red, indigo, green and yellow stripes — have no specific meaning. The colours were popular when the blankets were first produced, and are sometimes known as Queen Anne’s colours, as they were favoured during her reign (1702–14).
Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets were traditionally made in plain red, white, green or blue background, with a single bar (called “heading”) of indigo on either end. Over the years of fur trading, the design of point blankets grew to accommodate the preferences of various Indigenous nations. For example, when the HBC first established trading posts and forts in the Pacific Northwest, Coast Salish women — who had been weaving blankets out of mountain goat and dog hair since well before European contact — became determined to get high-quality point blankets. Chief factor for the HBC’s Columbia District, John McLoughlin, informed the company in 1845 to make blankets resembling the more favourably-designed American point blankets: “The American Blanket though generally inferior to ours, meets a readier sale with Indians in consequence of its gaudy color and we beg that those we have ordered may be made in respect of color and texture fully equal to the samples.” Therefore, when the Coast Salish preferred a purer white colour, the HBC complied. Occasionally, Coast Salish women would sew in folds and add borders to adjust the size and form of the point blankets for ease of use.
In other Indigenous communities, the preferred design of point blankets differed. For example, many Inuit liked plain white blankets that provided camouflage, while the Tsimshian and Tlingit typically preferred deep blue designs. Nuu-chah-nulth nations tended to like green blankets, and in many Coast Salish communities, red. Though the reason for these differences is not certain, it is thought that certain patterns and colours held important spiritual meaning, as well as practical use. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples.) Trade blankets were so popular on the West Coast that British weavers altered the colours of designs to meet local demand.
By 1929, the HBC expanded their variety of colours in order to make the blankets an essential part of home décor. Occasionally, the HBC would produce blankets for special events or anniversaries; for instance, for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a royal purple blanket with white stripes and point was produced. According to the HBC, the hue and colour order in the famous white and colour-striped point blanket were not standardized until the mid- to late-19th century.
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1916, Pendleton, an Oregon-based blanket company, created its Glacier Stripe design, which uses the same stripe and colour design as the Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets. The HBC sews a label of authenticity in one corner of their point blankets in order to distinguish them from similar-looking blankets. The Glacier Stripe blankets continue to be produced today through Pendleton.
For some Indigenous peoples, the point blanket represents the forces of colonization. Cree artist Kent Monkman uses the point blankets in his series of paintings, “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,” as a representation of “the imperial powers that dominated and dispossessed Indigenous people of their land and livelihood.” In 2011, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore created the video installation “The Blanket,” which features Winnipeg dancer Ming Hong rolling down a snow-covered hill in a point blanket. Belmore argues that while the “blanket is an object of beauty, a collector’s item that belongs to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s history,” it is, for many Indigenous peoples, “still viewed as a trade item that once contained the gift of disease.”
Belmore is referring here to the history of Europeans intentionally giving blankets contaminated with smallpox and other infectious diseases to Indigenous peoples. The story originates in a notorious series of letters from the 1763 Pontiac Uprising in Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania, in which Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in North America, encouraged the use of blankets infected with smallpox as a means of biological warfare: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate [sic] the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as try every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.” While there was an outbreak of smallpox among the Indigenous peoples around Pennsylvania that spring, the disease had already been in that area, and it is therefore unknown if Amherst’s thoughts were put in action.
Some scholars, such as historian Robert Boyd and artist and anthropologist Marianne Nicolson, believe that colonial authorities knew that smallpox would spread into Western Canada, and that it would help colonial authorities claim Indigenous lands without treaties or compensation. Even if they did not intend to use the blankets to spread smallpox, trading blankets easily allowed for the transferring of European diseases to Indigenous people.
While the HBC acknowledges that smallpox decimated Indigenous populations across Canada, it states that its company “had nothing to do with the use of smallpox blankets as biological warfare.” In fact, the company claims that HBC employees tried to stop the spread of disease by practicing quarantine and providing care for the infected.
Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide
Indigenous Peoples Collection
W.R. Swagerty, “Indian Trade Blankets in the Pacific Northwest: History and Symbolism of a Unique North American Tradition,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History (2002).
Joshua Ostroff, “How a Smallpox Epidemic Forged Modern British Columbia,” Macleans (2017).
Sylvia Olsen, Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater (2010).
Harold Tichenor, The Blanket: An Illustrated History of the Hudson’s Bay Blanket (2002).