The Original Mackintosh Raincoat: 250 Year-Old British Style Icon

Updated on August 9, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes on a wide variety of subjects.

The Mackintosh Shop, Burlington Arcade, London, UK. The Mackintosh brand is now a global style icon.
The Mackintosh Shop, Burlington Arcade, London, UK. The Mackintosh brand is now a global style icon. | Source

The Original Mackintosh Raincoat

The term Mackintosh raincoat, Mack or Mac has become a generic term for any waterproof coat. However, the true Mackintosh has a specific combination of naptha tar and rubber layered onto fabric to create a completely waterproof cloth.

The original Mackintosh coat was made from cotton material coated with rubber solution. The process was invented and patented by the Scottish chemist, Charles Macintosh. His process of waterproofing fabric used rubber dissolved in coal-tar naphtha. The process was patented in 1823 and the first Mackintosh raincoats were sold in 1824.

To commemorate this often overlooked inventor Charles Macintosh had the honor of a Google Doodle (see below) on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Google Doodle 29th December 2016 celebrates Charles Macintosh's 250th Birthday.
Google Doodle 29th December 2016 celebrates Charles Macintosh's 250th Birthday. | Source

Charles Macintosh, Chemist, Inventor of Waterproof Rubber Coated Cotton Fabric

Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) was born in Glasgow, Scotland, UK. His father was a dyer and Charles started his working life as a chemist in the dying industry. He was a talented industrial chemist and made several inventions before his experiments produced the one that made him famous.

He discovered that coal-tar naphtha acted as a solvent when applied to rubber. He experimented with various uses for this novel rubber solution. The most practical and commercially viable one was to paint it onto garments to make them waterproof. He made a fabric “sandwich” by spreading the rubber solution between two bolts of cotton cloth. This made the fabric impervious to rain.

In eighteenth century Scotland, people travelled by horseback or by walking. This was well before the invention of the internal combustion engine and cars. In inclement weather (for which Scotland is well known!) waterproof clothing was a really useful invention.

A female worker operates a calendering machine in the rubber factory of Charles Macintosh and Sons Ltd, Manchester, in September 1918.
A female worker operates a calendering machine in the rubber factory of Charles Macintosh and Sons Ltd, Manchester, in September 1918. | Source

Calendering Process Produces Rubber Sheets

A machine with giant rollers is used to press rubber into thin sheets before being applied to the fabric. The process is called calendering.

A modern rubber calendering machine can be seen in the video below. Its function is to press the mixed and refined rubber mixture into sheets of consistent thickness and quality. The rubber sheets are then used in single or double thickness between or on top of various textile fabrics. The iconic Mackintosh coat is made of rubberised cotton fabric.

Modern Rubber 3 Roll Calender Machine

The Name Macintosh Becomes Mackintosh

Charles Macintosh needed an investor to make the most of his invention. He had the technical know-how but he needed someone with money as well as knowledge and experience of the garment industry. In 1824 he found an ideal business partner in Hugh Hornby Birley who owned a factory in Manchester, England, UK. Initially some production was carried out in Scotland, but by 1840 the company moved its manufacturing base to Manchester, England.

One result of the partnership was a change to the spelling of the brand name. Charles Macintosh (a Scot) spelt his name the Scottish way. In England the same name is spelt with a ‘k’. Thus Charles Macintosh (the man’s name) is spelled without a ‘k’. Mackintosh (the raincoat brand) is correctly spelled with a ‘k’.

Ancoats Cotton Mills, Manchester, England. Parts of this mill date from 1798.
Ancoats Cotton Mills, Manchester, England. Parts of this mill date from 1798. | Source

Manchester's Nickname was Cottonopolis

During the 18th century and 19th century, Manchester, England, UK was the center of the world’s cotton spinning and weaving industry. Its nickname at the time was Cottonopolis. By 1871, one third of the entire global cotton harvest was processed in Manchester and its satellite towns. With its many factories providing a steady source of cheap cotton fabric, Manchester was the logical place for Macintosh to choose for his new venture.

The Big Mack

Do you wear a Mackintosh?

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Secrets of the Mackintosh Brand

Mackintosh Combines Heritage and Luxury

Mackintosh rubberized coats were not immediately successful. Although they were waterproof, they had a strong smell which most wearers found unpleasant. It was not until a fellow chemist, Thomas Hancock, invented a process involving vulcanized rubber that the problem was solved. Hancock became a partner in Macintosh’s business in 1834. This marked the real start of the iconic Mackintosh brand.

In 1824 an Arctic exploration team trialed rubber coated waterproof canvas bags, air-beds and pillows made by the Macintosh patented process. In 1841 the British army ordered waterproof clothing for all its troops. The rubberized coats and capes were functional and hard wearing and they soon became standard army issue.

After the death of Charles Macintosh in 1843, the company had a period of decline. But in 1851 the Mackintosh coat was shown at The Grand Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London. And the rest (as they say) is history.

The History Behind the Iconic Brand

Mackintosh Raincoats are a Fashion Favorite

The vulcanized rubber fabric used today in Mackintosh coats is virtually the same as that first produced nearly two hundred years ago. To maintain the waterproof quality of the fabric stitching holes are recoated with the rubber solution. It is a labor intensive process and this is reflected in the price of the finished product. Modern manufacturing processes mean that Mackintosh raincoats are lighter and easier to wear than they used to be. The following video clip shows one of the latest styles.

This Famous Fashion Brand is Now Japanese

Fans of the Mackintosh brand are said to have included actors Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is also said to wear the brand. Most people would connect the iconic Mackintosh with Britain. But in 2007 the brand was sold to a Japanese firm, Yagi Tsusho.

However, the Japanese owners continue the brand's connection with Britain. It manufactures all its stylish UK branded waterproof coats in just one factory in Glasgow, Scotland.

The rubberised coats are made using the same procedures that were used in the 19th Century. It takes 3-years to train as Mackintosh coat-maker. A “Genuinely Handmade” label is sewn into each coat to emphasise the traditional process and craftsmanship.

Cycling in the rain, Osaka, Japan. The Mackintosh raincoat is functional as well as fashionable.
Cycling in the rain, Osaka, Japan. The Mackintosh raincoat is functional as well as fashionable. | Source

Is a Mackintosh Made in Scotland Expensive?

The value of an item of clothing is determined by the owner. What you consider value-for-money, I may think of as expensive and vice versa.

The price paid for a Mackintosh coat made in Scotland is seen as good value by many people. The coats are well made and last a lifetime of wear. You are buying a heritage garment, a piece of history. The workers are skilled and they are paid accordingly. Their workplace is protected by health and safety legislation. This all comes with a financial price tag.

Imitation waterproof macs use cheap unskilled labor in under-developed countries. The fabric is poor quality and the clothing does not last. Workers are employed in sweatshop conditions and many are injured in the course of their work. This makes "cheap" copycat Mackintosh coats very expensive indeed.

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