The Bates Bedspread, once found in nearly every household, has links to presidents, First Ladies, a famous midwife and countless women who wove white candlewick counterpanes in their own homes.
Though the first Bates Bedspread wasn’t sold until 1940, its American ancestors date back to the 18th century. George Washington gave Martha Custis the prototype for the bedspread as a wedding gift. Little did he know the precedent he was setting -- or that the giant textile mills that made the bedspread named after him would be the largest employer in a place that would be called Maine.
A Bates Bedspread advertisement wasn't far off the mark when it claimed,
Garlands and stylized flowers with a richly looped hand-woven look make this aristocratic bedspread truly an heirloom.
Whitework embroidered bedspreads were fashionable when George and Martha tied the knot in 1759, but they became even more popular from about 1800 to 1840. In those days, having a fine white candlewick counterpane was a way to maintain one’s social standing.
In many places, the way to have an early American version of the Bates Bedspread was to make one yourself.
Cloth was hard to get, especially on the frontier, and it was up to the women to pick, spin, comb, dye and card flax, wool and cotton. Cotton was bought by the pound in early America, according to historian Alice Morse Earle. The cotton seeds were picked out one by one and the cotton was carded on wool cards, then spun into thread.
In Hallowell, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), Martha Ballard wrote in her diary that she had carded cotton on July 27, 1786. Ballard, made posthumously famous by Laurel Thacher Ulrich in A Midwife’s Tale, didn’t weave the cotton cloth herself; she took her spun cotton to her neighbor, Mr. Edson, to be woven.
Most women back then spent endless hours carding and spinning. In 1790, 15-year-old Elizabeth Fuller started a diary from her home on a farm in Princeton, Mass. Entry after entry describes making cloth. “I spun two skeins today" and “I wove five yards today” were typical. In the spring of 1792, she wove for two months solid and estimated she produced 140 yards of cloth.
Some women were expert enough to make candlewicking bedspreads on home looms.
In candlewicking, large running stitches are sewn into a pattern on unbleached white muslin and passed over a small twig. The twig is later removed and the fabric shrunk in hot water, which holds the stitches in place. It gets its name from the soft cotton thread that’s also used as a candle wick.
Elizabeth Perkins Wildes Bourne made one (and probably more) on her loom in Kennebunk, Maine. Her daughter, Abigail Wildes, wove a poem into a coverlet she sent to First Lady Dolley Madison in 1809.
Benjamin Bates, born July 12, 1808, grew up on a farm in Mansfield, Mass. He was the son of a Yankee farmer, merchant and maker of cotton cloth – probably on a home loom.
He moved to Boston, went into the dry goods business and made a public profession of his Congregationalist faith. He prospered and became the president of the First National Bank of Commerce in Boston, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Lewiston Water Power Company, which built the first canal in Lewiston.
The canal allowed water power to run the machinery in the textile mills that Bates' money would soon build. Until then, weaving cloth had been a home-based profession. In 1810, for example, 88 percent of the households in Topsham, Maine, told census takers they made cloth. More than half had looms, and some loom owners, like Martha Ballard’s Mr. Edson, wove cloth for their neighbors.
Bates was the biggest investor in the Bates Mill, which opened in 1854. The company eventually built 11 buildings between 1852 and 1923.
Before the Civil War broke out, Bates bought cotton and produced uniforms for the Union Army. He contributed $100,000 to the Maine State Seminary, which renamed itself Bates College without his knowledge. The first girls to graduate from Bates College paid for their own education by working at the mills.
The Bates Bedspread
Bates Manufacturing Company wove its first basic Bates bedspread in 1858. Almost 60 years later, in 1915, Bates expanded and bought new kinds of looms to make Jacquards, crochets, satins, brocades, damasks and Ripplette.
First Yankee farm girls worked at the mills. Then came Francophile Canadians and Irish fleeing the potato famine. No wonder then, why one mill building has a shamrock on one wall, a fleur-de-lis on the other.
Sometime in the 1930s, a Bates representative touring Mount Vernon was impressed with the bedspread George Washington gave Martha. The rep realized such an item could sell, as the colonial revival was at its peak.
The Bates rep also thought the Lewiston mills could make Martha Washington's counterpane. So Bates designers went to work collecting samples of the antique spreads, visiting Mount Vernon and scouring museums and libraries for information about candlewicking.
After experimenting for two years, Bates produced the first of the legendary Bates Bedspreads and called it George Washington's Choice. It was made on a specially designed loom in January 1939. The company put the first Bates Bedspread on sale in March 1940.
It didn’t sell. But Bates added a double-knot fringe and made a few adjustments, and the Bates Bedspread caught on. It became a favorite wedding and anniversary gift in the 1940s and 1950s. Like the whitework embroidered counterpanes of the early 19th century, it was a status symbol – and more. "Loomed to be Heirloomed" was the apt slogan.
Each Bates Bedspread had a ‘pedigree' at one end of each bedspread that tells its size, style, year of production and loom number. New Bates Bedspreads were later introduced, such as the Abigail Adams and Queen Elizabeth.
Weavers worked seven days a week making Bates Bedspreads, but they couldn’t keep up with demand. It its heyday, 200,000 Bates Bedspreads were sold each year.
Poppy Shills for Bates
In 1948, a future president of the United States made his appearance in a Bates ad. George Bush and his new bride Barbara posed with Joan Walls of Bennington to show that Bates’ fine fabrics were perfect for the discriminating college student. The caption above the photo reads,
Victoria. Chosen by Barbara and George ‘Poppy’ Bush of Yale, and admired by Joan Walls of Bennington. Joan and Barbara wear easy-to-sew campus fashions in Bates cotton. Young marrieds on campus make Bates the beautiful basis of a long-range decorating plan. Indispensable at college, these bedspreads and matching draperies stay fresh and bright through four years of wear and washing. After graduation, they are ready to grace a future bedroom or living room.
(You can see the ad here.)
As New England’s textile industry moved South, and then overseas, the Bates Bedspread kept the Lewiston mills humming.
By 1990, the 50th anniversary of the first Bates Bedspread, demand dropped off and only about 35,000 a year were sold. Fred Lebel, Bates’ executive vice president, told the Lewiston Sun-Journal the reason was that so many people had them and didn’t need new ones.
But then he conceded competitors were producing cheaper quality versions of the Bates Bedspread and hurting sales.
In 1992, the City of Lewiston took possession of the Bates Mill Complex after years of unpaid taxes.
When Bates came up with the first George Washington’s Choice, the company claimed candlewicking was a lost art. Actually it had been thriving in northwest Georgia in a small city called Dalton.
Dalton, which called itself “The Bedspread Capital of the World,” was home to a flourishing cottage industry of tufted cotton products. From the 18th century, women made tufted cotton bedspreads for their own use.
After World War I, Dalton entrepreneurs set up roadside stands selling chenille robes and bedspreads for tourists driving south along Highway 41, known as Bedspread Boulevard. Later, thousands of men, women and children in Dalton would work on bedspreads at home for national distributors.
According to the Dalton News, J.T. Bates of Bates Bedspread Company owned an antique candlewick spread made by his great-grandmother, Eva Deck, in 1789. Deck was 16 when she picked the cotton, spun the thread and tufted the bedspread. The newspaper considered it less beautiful than the Bates Bedspreads her great-grandson's company sold. J.T. Bates said he would sell
...any other spread for much less than he would this old heirloom, in fact this one is not for sale.
With thanks to Ashley Callahan in Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This story was updated in 2018.