Beacon, Part III

Photo copyright and courtesy of french72

I’ll finish up the series on Beacon blankets and robes by giving a bit of the history of the company.  But first, I’ve got to say a word or two about the robe above.  It really is a special one, made from the ombre weave fabric.  It’s a man’s robe, as evidenced by the buttons.  And it is from the 1930s.  The ombre was introduced in 1926, and the 1940s and later robes usually don’t have buttons.  See more photos on the ebay sales page.

 

The Beacon Manufacturing Company was located in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and originally they made reprocessed yarn. In 1904, the company was bought by the Charles D. Owen family, who really began the blanket and fabric company. In 1923 they went in search of a location in the South in which to locate their spinning operation. They settled on Swannanoa, a farming community about ten miles east of Asheville, North Carolina. Ten years later the entire operation had been moved to North Carolina. At the time Beacon was the largest blanket maker in the world.

So why did Beacon leave Massachusetts for the South? The simple answer is that it was cheaper to do business here than in the North. They would be closer to the source of their raw material – cotton, so that saved transportation costs. Also, wages were much lower in the South. Labor unions were almost unheard of, and jobs were so hard to come by that workers often developed a strong loyalty to the company and to the owners. This was not just true at Beacon – this was true in mill towns all over the South. In the early days of the 20th century many Northern entrepreneurs started or moved industries south and they were gratefully welcomed into most communities.

Before 1932 Beacon used images of American Indians at looms weaving blankets in their advertising.  In 1930s the Federal Trade Commission and the Navajo Indian tribe filed a complaint, saying the advertising was misleading and injurious to Indian weavers.  The company was ordered to stop using Indian images, and they had to make clear that the blankets were not woven by Native Americans.

During WWII Beacon converted to making wool and wool/cotton blend blankets for the war effort.  So many of the workers left to join the military that the jobs were filled by the women of the community, Rosie the Riveter style.

After the war Beacon reverted back to cotton.    In the 1950s, however, the company began adding rayon to the cotton.  At the same time, the ombre weaves were discontinued, as they could not be woven on newly installed machinery.  By the time the  plant closed in 2002, they were making blankets of acrylic.

It’s hard to over-stress how important a factory like Beacon was to a little community like Swannanoa.  It employed over 2000 people, there was a mill village and a company store.  The factory was the very heart of the community.  When the closed factory building burned in 2003, people said it was the end of an era.  But actually, the end had been some time in coming.  Over the previous ten years the company had changed hands and had downsized several times.  Still, it was a shock to see such a fixture of the community go up in smoke.

Comments:

Posted by Holly:

I really enjoyed this series of posts. I found this one tonight while browsing. What a Beacon beaut! http://bit.ly/dukOzC

Monday, February 8th 2010 @ 4:14 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Thanks so much Holly. I was beginning to think I’d put all the readers to sleep!

That is a great robe, wonderful condition. I actually love the inside of the print better than the outside!

Monday, February 8th 2010 @ 4:55 PM

Posted by Nancy:

Great article. I just found a robe in a thrift store and bought it because it looked so amazing. This series of articles was quite enlightening. The robe is so heavy and material so coarse, I thought it might be wool, but it must be cotton based on the blogs. Any suggestions on care? I would like to be sure it is clean. Thanks

Tuesday, May 25th 2010 @ 3:25 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Nancy,
I have one, and I wash it by hand, being really careful not to pull it out of shape. It does beautifully! I’ve never seen a wool Beacon robe, but that does not mean that could not exist. It is possible some of the WWII era fabric was made up into robes.Thanks for the nice words!

Sunday, May 30th 2010 @ 5:31 AM

 

9 Comments

Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

9 responses to “Beacon, Part III

  1. Barbara

    I found a childs jacket( maybe 50’s era )and it has a tag that says Genuine Beacon Fabric. Did they make jackets as well. It is a light blue with yellow ducks . I buttons up the front (2 buttons) and a small pocket to the right. Did they make jackets ?

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    • Beacon only made the fabric which was sold as blankets and as yardage to clothing manufacturers. Clothing, and I’ve only ever seen robes, were identified in the manner as your item. If you’d like to email a photo I’ll be happy to tell you what I think.

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  4. Theresa

    Lucky me to have found the two Beacon robes my brother and I wore, way back in the 1050’s! They are the ombre weave style – mine is blue and my brother’s red – and in great shape, though both missing their tie belts. I had no idea of the history or value of these garments and am so glad to read about the company on your site. Thank you for all the research you’ve done!

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  5. Carol L Frost

    I’ve been collecting, selling, and wearing old Beacon robes for years. It’s fun to see them in old movies. Thanks so much for sharing their history! Carol

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