The American Carpet Industry - A Brief History
August 16, 2019
Posted by D. A. Burns
The Early Years of Woven Carpet
In 1791, only 15 years after the Declaration of Independence, the first documented United States woven carpet mill came into existence. It was founded by William Sprague in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
During the early 1800s, skilled weavers created area rugs and carpets using handloom technology, enduring the same problems as other textile manufacturers at the time…imports. Congress moved to protect the US carpet industry by imposing tariffs, and by 1834 there were 20 carpet mills producing a total of about 1 million square yards per year.
In 1829, the 25-year-old entrepreneur Erasmus Bigelow invented the power loom for weaving carpets and forever changed the flooring industry. The production of American-made carpet tripled during the next decade.
Over the following decades many other mills followed suit in the New England area, including Robert Beattie’s Beattie Manufacturing Company in Little Falls, New Jersey. Beattie Manufacturing Company continued in business all the way from 1840 to 1979 under other names such as Beattie and Sons and the Little Falls Carpet Mills.
The Clinton Company in Massachusetts was the first to use the Jacquard power loom mechanism and manufactured Wilton carpet. Later the Hartford Carpet Company joined with the Clinton Company to become the Bigelow Company.
(Side Note: Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard invented his weaving method in 1804, controlled by a chain of cards. Several rows of holes, punched on each card, allowed the loom to create textiles of various designs and colors in sophisticated patterns. The use of punched cards is thought to be an innovation that more than a century later contributed to the invention of computer hardware.)
Four brothers living in New York State imported a dozen looms from England in the late 1870s and established the Shuttlesworth Brothers Company in Amsterdam, New York. When they produced a new kind of carpet called the Karnak Wilton in 1905, the demand from home owners was overwhelming. The brothers opened up a whole new building, just for the production of Karnak carpet. The style of carpet was so sought-after that for several years the company stuck with the same color and pattern.
In 1920, the brothers merged their company with a competitor in the Amsterdam market, McCleary, Wallin & Crouse and the new company was named Mohawk after the river that ran through the city.
Another innovator in the carpet industry, Alexander Smith of West Farms, New York, teamed with Halcyon Skinner to form a profitable carpet company employing over a thousand people…Smith was elected to Congress in 1878 but died the very same day. Their company, Alexander Smith & Sons carried on, and in World War I they adjusted to create products and supplies for the United States’ war effort. By the late 1920s the company was the largest carpet manufacturer in the world.
The Greatest Machine-Made “Oriental” Rug?
Marshall Field of Chicago founded the Marshall Field & Company Department Store and was seeking suppliers of bedding materials, towels and floor coverings. He realized there was also a demand for affordable Oriental style area rugs and decided to become his own supplier. In the 1920s he built his own plant in North Carolina to manufacture area rugs.
Field bought and imported equipment from England to weave Axminster-style wool carpets in the US under the brand name “Karastan”. Some of the equipment of that era is still in use today! Production started in 1928, and the company was able to produce beautiful and long-lasting area carpets that equaled the look of hand-knotted Persian rugs at a much more agreeable price point than the Middle Eastern versions. Suddenly middle class Americans could afford the luxury of “Oriental” rugs.
(Side note: Here at D. A. Burns & Sons, Inc. in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, we clean hundreds of Karastan rugs every year, many of which were produced decades ago. Their quality and longevity is comparable to many hand-knotted Oriental rugs.)
Up until about 1950 most “made in USA” carpets were constructed of wool fibers and were woven in the mills of the northeastern states. In spite of incremental progress in production efficiency, woven carpets still seemed to be too expensive for the working class market. Manufacturers applied strategies such as selling carpet “on time” (credit) through retailers.
A New Manufacturing Method … Tufting
A big evolution happened in 1950s: Southern states created a new substitute for woven goods – “tufted” carpets and rugs. Sales went from zero to more than 100 million square yards within 10 years!
How did that come to be? Decades earlier in 1895, Catherine Evans, a young woman in Dalton, Georgia, had admired an old hand-tufted bedspread that she saw at a friend’s house. She reproduced the design and created a similar item as a wedding gift for another friend, sewing thick cotton yarns with a running stitch into unbleached muslin. She clipped the ends of the yarn to make them fluff out and washed the cover in hot water to shrink the muslin, which held the yarns in place.
After giving away the first bedspread, she created and sold a second one for $2.50. Then she and some family members taught other women in the area the art of tufting, and the bedspreads became popular to the point of becoming a source of economic growth in northern Georgia even while the Great Depression was taking place.
The market for the spreads was not confined to the South; they also sold well in the Northeast. The tufted bedspread industry continued to grow during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
The first mechanized tufting machine was created by the Glen Looper Foundry in Dalton, Georgia, modifying a commercial sewing machine so it could tuft yarn into muslin without tearing the fabric. Further modification allowed for up to 24 needles to be used to tuft parallel rows and create a textile known as chenille.
The region between Dalton and Cartersville became know as “Bedspread Alley”. In time, the machinery was changed to allow for the production of area rugs and broadloom carpet (what we now refer to as “wall-to-wall” or “installed” carpet).
Introducing New Carpet Fibers
Up until the mid-1950s, cotton was the only fiber used in tufted products. As the machine-tufted carpet industry grew, wool and man-made fibers such as nylon, polyester and acrylics came into use. Nylon was the most important innovation with an appearance, feel and durability similar to wool at a fraction of the cost.
Nylon carpet with a stain protectant treatment, applied at the point of manufacture, is the prevalent fiber found in broadloom carpet produced in the US today.