Friday, 03 December 2010 13:54

Threads of History - Chase Lap Blankets

Written by  Martha Greene Phillips
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When November arrives, and winter is around the corner, I begin to plan for sleigh weather. Jostling the horse-drawn vehicles around in the shed is the first step; get the sleigh and bobsled forward, and tuck the wheeled vehicles back until spring. After that I pull a stack of lap robes out of a trunk, and put them near the sleighs. These old, richly colored and  heavy wool lap robes that I pile on in the winter to keep me and my passengers warm, have an equally rich and colorful history.

Years ago anyone who had a horse had some heavy lap robes, along with various kinds of foot warmers, fur coats and muffs to survive travel in the winter. The robes ranged from homemade fabric ones, through horse and buffalo fur, to the commercially produced intricate designs that were popular in the Victorian era. Quality and fibers were varied, from prime quality woolens to “shoddy,” a historical term for recycled fibers (not meaning bad workmanship as we now use the word). There were hundreds of designs, made by a myriad of mills. The story of these robes, also called sleigh blankets or carriage robes, or rugs, is the story of New England. It is a tale of individual Yankee pluck, hard work and ingenuity, as well as the industrial age in New England, the golden age of textile manufacturing there.

In this picture you can see the scale of Sanford Mills. By the time of this photograph, the Mills were producing a number of products in addition to lap robes.
Some of the best blankets were made for the Chase label, in the sprawling Goodall Mills of Sanford, Maine, around the turn of the century. A classic mill town, Sanford was built along a river for water power. It was developed there and owned by the Goodall family during the late 19th century, continuing to produce textiles through the mid 20th century.

How did it all start?

Thomas Goodall, born in 1823, became an orphan who went to work to support himself at a young age. By 1844, he had a successful business in making his first invention:

“One cold windy day he observed a farmer endeavoring to secure a blanket to the back of a horse, and he at once conceived the idea of shaping a blanket to the horse and keeping it in place by straps and buckles,”  (National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol 14).

He became the first and, at the time, only manufacturer of horse blankets. The business grew so quickly and was so successful that by 1865, Thomas was able to sell out, and move to England, where he became an exporter of English plush lap robes.

In 1867, Thomas returned to the States, where he bought vast amounts of land at Sanford, in Southeast Maine, on the Mousam River. He bought the land both for water rights and a place to manufacture plush lap robes. His plant was the first manufacturer of robes in the United States. By 1910, the mills were a two million dollar business, employing more than 1,100 people.

The Goodall family grew and remained heavily invested in the mills, with various family members taking responsibility for different parts of the operation, through 1944. For example, one of the Goodall sons, who wished to be an artist, was probably pressured to stay with the company instead, and became their dye expert. He studied dyes and dyeing methods in Belgium and France, and brought his knowledge home to Sanford for use in the mills. There was an entire building on the grounds for dyes and dye development. The rich hues and intensity of colors, as well as the staying power of colors in Chase blankets are a testimony to these efforts.

In the postcard view above, you can see the scale of Sanford Mills. By the time of this photograph, the mills were producing a number of products in addition to lap robes. During the mills’ lifespan, mohair plush car upholstery (through the 1940s), Palm Bach suit fabrics, carpets and upholstery were produced at Sanford.

Now, back to the lap robes. The lavish and intricate designs of these robes are quintessential Victorian Americana. The Victorian period was the time of the gentleman or lady naturalist and collector, the time of Teddy Roosevelt and the explorer, and the limitless frontier. Victorian homes were over-the-top decorated and layered in various natural motifs and ornamentation. Likewise, lap robes have a myriad of designs, usually including many, sometimes incongruent, motifs, such as flowers, children, horses, wild animals, geometric designs, and a few capped off with wonderful glass-eyes staring out at you.

A model loom, courtesy of the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum, Sanford, Maine.

In my study, survey, and collecting I have never seen a duplicate design offered for sale. There might be similar themes, but I have yet to see a duplicate offering.

How could this be? A look at the 1912 Chase catalog showed over 150 lap robe designs available for just that one year. Some of these designs are shown in the photos on the opposing page.

As you can see, these elaborate, sentimental, and romantic images are completely in keeping with the late 19th and earlier 20th century styles.

How were the robes made? Chase robes were woven on huge looms to a standard size of 48" x 60."

After being woven, the robes were dyed and stenciled on the face, using the rich colors and dyes that Chase was noted for. The backs were typically solid black. Stenciling allowed for the variety of motifs offered; if the patterns had been woven in, as on a traditional tapestry loom, the designing would have been complex and difficult, self-limiting in terms of a variety of choices, and these woven designs would have been too expensive for the general population to purchase.

As you might guess, the amount of labor required and labor laws of the period meant that the labor force was made up of adult women, men and children. Pay scales on New England mills were quite preferential to men. A U.S. census commission report from 1890 showed that weavers (men) made $9 per week, while spinners (girls) made $5-6 a week. There are numerous stories and photographs in New England archives about working conditions and work injuries, especially to children. The group photograph from the Sanford Mills shows a variety of hard-working people of all ages.

Image courtesy of the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum from the 1912 Chase catalog.
To the Goodall family’s credit, the employees of the mill were relatively well-treated. The Goodalls were known for their generosity and philanthropy, offering their workers an annual Fourth of July holiday. The Mills were closed and a special private excursion train transported all the workers and their families to the seaside for a picnic. As the seashore was about twenty miles from Sanford, few workers would have gone there often, and this was a special treat, almost an exotic excursion.

As with any manufacturing business, other business issues arose.

Import and tariff concerns developed; the lap robe industry required a large amount of mohair fiber, which created U.S. Customs rulings on wool and mohair imports.

Also, labor issues became more complicated during the mills’ life in Sanford. By 1924, the Sanford Mills employed four thousand workers, which necessitated a huge influx of French Canadians–there were not enough local workers to meet the labor demand. Feelings were not always positive toward these French Canadians, and they were sometimes called the “Chinese of the East,” comparing them to the large migration of Chinese to the West coast a decade or two earlier. Legislation was introduced to limit their immigration. A local Sanford historian told me that during this time the population of Quebec dropped by one-third as the New England mills gobbled up French Canadian labor.

So many issues, so similar to ones we face today!

The designs on the lap robes are numerous and as you can see, very detailed.
Next time you see an old lap robe, you may notice more than the design, color and warmth. When you throw it on your lap before a day of sleighing, maybe you will think of the people who spun or wove the blankets, going on an annual seaside excursion. Most of all I hope you will remember the pluck of a young orphan boy, and his success story, from horse-blanket inventor to patriarch of a huge family manufacturing business, making some of the finest robes that we still enjoy today.
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