Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

COLEMAN, WILLIAM (1870-1957)

William Coffin Coleman founded a manufacturing company that became a world leader in the production of camping equipment. Born in Chatham, New York, on May 21, 1870, Coleman grew up in Labette County, Kansas. To earn money as a law student at the University of Kansas in 1900, he began selling a lamp that burned gasoline under high pressure. Sales were disappointing, so he acquired the lamp's patent and redesigned it. Soon he was manufacturing his own version in a small building in Wichita, Kansas.

In 1905 Coleman's arc lanterns lit one of the first night football games ever played–at Wichita's Fairmount College, later Wichita State University. Coleman's lanterns quickly became popular with farmers, campers, and emergency workers. Through the years, he added more products, including heaters and air conditioners. During World War II, American servicemen in Europe and Asia used more than one million of Coleman's ingenious "GI pocket stoves," ranked with the jeep as the one of the most important pieces of noncombat equipment developed during the war.

After William's death in Wichita on November 2, 1957, his son and grandson, Sheldon and Sheldon C. Coleman, managed the Wichita company. By the 1960s their expansion into the camping and recreation products market had made Coleman a household word. In a 1989 hostile takeover, New York investor Ron Perelman acquired the Kansas firm. The Sunbeam Corporation took control in 1998, moving the headquarters from Wichita to Boca Raton, Florida. At that time, Coleman had manufacturing plants in eight states and six foreign countries. The bulk of its employees were in Wichita, making William Coleman's former company one of Kansas's leading exporters.

Dave Webb Kansas Heritage Center

Lunday, Sarah. "Shaking up Coleman." Wichita Eagle, May 12, 1998: 1a, 4a.

Webb, Dave. 399 Kansas Characters. Dodge City: Kansas Heritage Center, 1994.

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