Tag Archives: Beacon blankets

Beacon Blankets Make Warm Friends

Those of you who have been reading this blog a while know I’m interested in more than just old clothes. I also love reading about the Southern textile industry, and especially in how it operated in my state of North Carolina. Like much of the rest of the South, cotton grows in NC, though not where I live in the a bit too cool for the crop mountains. As a kid I had cousins who lived in the textile town of Gastonia, and even then I was fascinated in the difference in their way of life as cotton mill kids, and that of mine, whose father worked making paper.

Even though the Asheville area does not grow cotton, textile industries developed in the mountains after the arrival of the railroad made getting the cotton here very easy. Most of the businesses made hosiery, but there were sewing plants as well. The denim-weaving center was a few hours east by rail, and so small jeans and overall factories were scattered across the mountains.

But most of the actual spinning of cotton and production of cotton took place in the cotton growing area of the lowlands. A major exception to this was Beacon Blankets, which were made in Swannanoa, ten miles or so east of Asheville. The company actually started in the textile center of Massachusetts, but in the 1920s, the owner, Charles D. Owen, looked to the South in order to cut costs. He chose the Swannanoa River Valley, as it was undeveloped, and there was a ready and eager work force nearby. I’ve written quite a bit about the history of Beacon, and the motivations of Northern companies in their quest for cheaper production. part 1 part 2 part 3

I recently found a little brochure published by Beacon, telling consumers (and retailers) why they needed to use cotton, rather than wool, blankets. At the top is a drawing of the massive factory at New Bedford, MA. Beacon was a vertical factory, meaning that the entire process of blanket-making happened under the same roof. They collected cotton waste from other industries, reprocessed the fiber, spun the yarn, dyed it, and loomed it all in the same facility.

There’s no date on my brochure, but because it shows the facility in Massachusetts, I can assume that it was before the 1925 move to North Carolina. Another clue is the cover picture of the Indian, and the use of “Indian Blankets” in their product line listing. In 1930 Beacon was sued by the Navajo Nation because Beacon’s use of  images of Native Americans and the term “Indian Blankets” seemed to imply that the blankets were Indian-made. After 1932, Beacon had to drop the phrase “Indian Blanket” and limit the use of images that implied the blankets were Native-made.

But the best indicators of age are the lovely illustrations of people using Beacon Blankets.

Skirts (and nightgowns) are several inches off the floor, and most of the women still have long hair.

The illustrations show the loose waistline of around 1919 to 1921.

It’s very slightly raised in some of the pictures, as you see in garments just before the waistline dropped to the hips in the later 1920s.

Beacon not only made blankets, they also manufactured what they called robe cloth. It was a bit lighter weight than the blankets, and was sold to both robe manufacturers and to home sewers. If you look in a vintage mail order catalog, it is likely you find both the finished robe and the robe cloth yardage for sale.

If you watch old movies and television shows, it’s quite likely that you’ve seen Beacon robes in action. Last night an early 1960s episode of The Andy Griffith Show was playing, and Floyd the Barber was wearing one of the best Beacon robes I’ve ever seen. Of course, by 1960s, his robe was terribly old-fashioned, which was the point.

 

16 Comments

Filed under Textiles

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

Beacon Part II

from a 1927 Montgomery Ward catalog

Today it’s more about Beacon Blankets and the lovely robes made from the blanket cloth.   If the original Beacon company were to open today, their big selling point would be that they were “green.”  That’s because the blankets and cloth were made from the waste cotton from other processes.  They were even able to reprocess their own waste.  Because of the nature of blankets – you want a thick, fluffy product – ordinary cotton processing machines were not used.  Beacon ordered special machinery from Europe, and then refit it to suit their purpose.

I’ll write about the history of Beacon tomorrow, but today’s topic is the product – that warm and fuzzy cotton blanket cloth. From the beginning, Beacon used jacquard looms that permitted the weavers to use up to four colors.  They began to develop designs that were influenced by the American Indian blankets of the West.  They even used Indian images in their advertising, a practice that they were forced to stop after being sued by the FTC and the Navajo Indian Nation in the 1930s!

Many of the designs were influenced by the Art Deco movement. Stylized themes and geometric shapes were commonly used.  To increase the richness of the colors, a ombre process was developed that seemed to add shading and dimension to the designs.

The fabric actually had two distinctly different sides, due to the weaving process used.  The strongest side was called the patternization, and the reverse of the cloth was called the colorization.  Here is the robe I showed yesterday.  The patternization is on the right, and the colorization is on the left.

The Beacon factory made the blankets and fabric from start to finish,  and they even had a wholesale division that sold their products directly to department and dry goods stores.  They also made fabric for other companies such as Montgomery Ward and JC Penney.  Beacon did not make the robes; they provided the makers of them with the fabric and labels that read “Genuine Beacon Fabric” or “Made of Beacon Blanket.”  The label from my well-worn robe:

Home sewers could buy the robing fabric, and Beacon even made kits that included everything the sewer would need to make the robe.  The robing fabric was made in the deco prints and also in plaids.  By the 1950s rayon was added to the fabric, and in the early 1960s Beacon stopped making the robing.

The blankets might have a simple “Beacon” label, or they might not be labeled at all.  A removable paper label was sometimes used, so I imagine there are lots of unlabeled Beacons out there.  By using the illustrations in the book I was able to determine that a blanket I bought at a flea market is a Beacon:

And here is one that is labeled “Beacon’:

Tomorrow, the history of Beacon Manufacturing, and thoughts on the Southern mill experience.



1 Comment

Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Beacon Blankets Make Warm Friends

I really love learning about the local textile industries here in the Carolinas, and one that has been on my research list for a long time is Beacon.  But unlike some of the other topics I’ve looked into, Beacon is well documented, and there is in fact, a book for Beacon collectors.

For the most part, I’m not too crazy for books that are aimed at the collector.  There are some notable exceptions, but somehow most collector books miss the mark.  They are either poorly researched or poorly written, often the photos are amateurish and the content is badly organized.  There is often no index.  So I had seen the Beacon book, but did not buy it because I had better uses for the $49.95 the book retails for.  But I stumbled onto a copy at a local thrift store and so decided to take a chance.

I’ll say this, it is not as bad as I expected, as there is a lot of good information.  The complete contents of several company catalogs are printed, which is a real help in identifying the patterns and in dating items.  There is a complete company history, so the reader does get an idea of how the Beacon company grew and developed.  But the topic is handled a bit too reverently for my taste.  I mean, those factory owners might possibly been able to walk on water.

Also, there is no index.  Why would you print a resource book without an index is a mystery to me, but this seems to be a trademark of this particular publishing company.

And the photos, while pretty and colorful, are not captioned in a way that provide any information to the reader.  There are photos of stacks of pretty blankets, but no information about the blankets themselves.

I guess if I were a Beacon collector, the book would be of value, for the catalog reprints if nothing else.  But as a person with just a passing interest in the subject, I’ll probably be passing this book along to someone who needs it.  I did not intend for this post to turn into a book review. I wanted to write about Beacon, but my thoughts about the book just got in the way, and I had to let them out.

I’ll post about Beacon tomorrow.  In the meantime you can admire my one and only Beacon robe, shown above.   And if you are a blanket collector and are interested in the book, get in touch.

PS:  I decided not to link to Amazon where you can buy the book because I’d not let any of my friends spend $37.96 on this book.  Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

from a 1949 Montgomery Ward catalog

2 Comments

Filed under North Carolina, Textiles