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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Carpets And The Machine Era



UP to 1885 any "carpet industry" as such was purely experimental. The wool industry was young, uncertain; sheep were few and wool-raising a new practice as far as large-scale activity was concerned. Weaving was done at home by women who had not yet entered the field of business or even dreamed of doing so. The tools which they used were practically identical with those that had been employed for a thousand years by primitive civilizations. They could not produce rapidly, for it requires time to weave a yard of cloth without any power-driven machinery. A carpeted room, locked to children, was thrown open to admiring neighbors and relatives only for such momentous occasions as weddings, funerals and the like.

In these clays of mass production it is difficult to visualize a time when each object was an individual creation. It is only a little more than a hundred years since every yard of cloth was woven on a handloom. An attempt had been made repeatedly in England to adapt the newly invented power loom to the weaving of ingrain carpets, but without success. At that time Erastus Bigelow, a young American inventor, turned his attention to carpet machinery and tried to develop a loom that could make rapidly a carpet of smooth, even surface, a goad selvage, and. figures that would match perfectly.

The hand-weaver can to some extent meet these requiremerits by the cxcrcisc of juclgmcnt. If the shuttle has not fully done its work he can give the weft-thread a pull with his fingers. Should he find the design getting too long or too short, he can remedly the fault by putting more or less force to the lathe. If he observes that the surface of the cloth is becoming rough, he regulates the tension of the warps. He exercises ceaseless vigilance, skill and judgment to perfect the fabric. That human qualities might be transferred to a machine was doubted by persons living at the start of the machine age and unfamiliar with its possibill ties. But it was Bigalow who taught the machine to observe, to Judge and to vary its action with each modification which the case required. His method of producing steam power patterns was patented in I845. The same machine was happily found to be adaptable to Brussels and tapestry, the weaving of which had been deemed impossible through the use of power.

By 1849 ingrains were being woven at Lowell, Massachusetts, by handlooms at the rate of eight yards per day. With the adoption of power forty yards per day became a minimum. With an invention that made it possible to produce an attractive and serviceable fabric at a price well within the reach of most homemakers, the necessity that had urged women to make their own rugs was largely removed. The mills Bigelow erected were large and unique. The Lowell mill, with its two hundred iron looms, was in reality a huge carpet machine, for the mill and its furnishings were so combined and adapted as to produce remarkably harmonious action and excellent results. The Lancaster mill covered more than four acres of ground and was filled with machinery and apparatus much of which was invented or adapted, and all of which was arranged and adjusted, by Mr.Bigelow. It has been described as a supreme industrial achievement, and Hunt's Merchant's Magazine of the period asserted that it was "the most perfect establishment in the United States." The editor considered the dye houses "the most perfect in the world," adding that "in its vast completeness stands a splendid monument to the genuine and masterly power of the mind of the projector."

The mills drew hundreds of workmen. Erastus Bigelow and his brother Horace came to be regarded as patron saints, a feeling which was increased by the almost paternal interest they took and the sacrifices they made for the causes dear to them, remembering the privations of their own youth. At his death in 1879 Bigelow was considered one of the outstanding figures of the Nineteenth Century among industrial pathfinders.

But it seems that we Americans are never satisfied, and as soon as one goal is achieved, we reverse our objectives and another cycle begins. It is said of certain makers of oriental rugs that no matter what their skill they will always deliberately put a mistake in their work. This they do on the premise that only God can be perfect. It is this lack of humility in the machine, I suppose, that eliminates the human touch with its human frailty and individual aspect.

Thus while machine-made rugs are far more perfect in all respects than a handmade rug could ever hope to be, we miss their very imperfections, the endearing little foibles and features which are characteristic of the handmade production. Any rug which a machine turns out must of course be designed by a human mind, but the design must be adapted to the limitations of the machine. This does not enter into the personally, individually made rug where the maker can vary the design as he goes along. Repetition is distasteful to most people, and the craftsman will not only find it hard to make two objects exactly alike, but will not want to. He will instinctively introduce variations to gain versatility. It is this individual quality that the machine cannot reproduce and which, whether for better or worse, characterizes the handmade production. This may be one of the reasons why the craft of making hooked rugs did not die from competition with the cheap machine-made floor coverings. As a matter of fact, probably more were produced in the twenty years following the Civil War than at any other time.

Much of the post-Civil War popularity of hooked rugs was due to a tin peddler from Biddeford, Maine, whose name was Edward Sands Frost. He had been a soldier in the Civil War and was invalided home with tuberculosis. Advised to take to the open road as a peddler, he hit upon the idea of adding rug patterns to his stock. The patterns consisted of pieces of burlap upon which a rug design was traced, ready to hook. These patterns he carried over the countryside among the rural women of northern New England who immediately took them to their hearts, and because everyone who saw the designs was enraptured with them, they were a great commercial success from the outset.

It became evident to Frost that he needed a way of making patterns faster. Ingenious Yankee that he was, he soon hit upon the idea of metal stencils. These worked very well. He even indicated the colors by varying the paint he used in making his stenciled patterns. Eventually the enterprise proved so profitable that he opened a salesroom in Boston where he continued in this business for about six years. By 1876 he had cut no less than four tons of rug stencils out of thin sheets of tin, zinc, iron and copper. He had become a mam of wealth by then, owned a factory and supplied rug patterns for innumerable other peddlers and dealers.

Though Frost was obliged to go to California for his health, his business was still prospering when he returned for a visit in I890, and it kept going until after the turn of the Twentieth Century. It is interesting to note that the stencils were not destroyed, but stored away for whatever use the future might suggest. A few years ago a collector acquired them, recopy righted the entire collection, and began to reissue the patterns for contemporary friends of the rug-hooker's craft.

Frost's patterns were often improved upon, for people realized they were largely synthetic compositions to which many had contributed. But, even so, Frost is gratefully remembered for the actual service which he rendered.



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