Antique Week: Bates Bedspreads Woven With Presidential History
For more than 150 years, the Bates Company name has been associated with high quality textiles made in the USA from American yarns. Established in 1850, the Bates Manufacturing Company grew rapidly upon the wide-acceptance of award-winning products such as pantaloons cloth and cotton goods. Within seven years of operation, Bates Manufacturing employed more than 1,000 people and turned out a yardage of 5.7 million annually.
The company’s founder, Benjamin Bates, was a New England business man with passion and vision. In 1857, he expanded the company’s production to bedspreads. At the onset of the Civil War, textile competitors sold their cotton stock assuming that the war would be short-lived. Conversely, Mr. Bates bought as much cotton as he could and became the primary supplier of Union textiles for the next four years. Looking back at his legacy, the founder of Bates not only built a prosperous firm, but ultimately transformed the rural town of Lewiston, Maine into an industrial city.
As the Bates Company continued operations, the bedspread product line would become an increasingly larger player in building its revenue and reputation. In February of 1940, the company’s defining moment came with the introduction of the “George Washington’s Choice” hobnail bedspread. It was inspired by a historic candlewick-patterned bedspread given by President George Washington to his bride Martha. Using miles of 100 per cent cotton thread, the Bates Company wove their flagship product on old shuttle looms. Much of the finishing process was done by hand – adding fringe, pre-shrinking, packing, etc. With unquestionable quality and workmanship, the final product earned the company its trademark reputation for products “Loomed to be Heirloomed.”
Throughout mid-century America, the George Washington bedspreads were given as traditional gifts for weddings and anniversaries and then passed down for use to the next generation. Ever popular, the George Washington pattern (known today as Martha Washington’s Choice) has been in continuous production for 75 years. Other Bates products carry historic threads back to our presidents. The intricately detailed “Abigail Adams” matelassé bedspread was produced as a replica of the bedcovers used by President John Adams while living abroad in France. Collectors of fine matelassé appreciate its beauty, weight and the exquisite relief created by its trapunto-style design. The design features a center floral medallion framed by French-influenced scrollwork. Its introduction coincided with the 1976 Bicentennial and with a nod to history, Bates assigned it the style number 1776. This product was considered “top of the line” by Bates’ standards. It was the most costly to produce and commands a high resale value from second owners.
In the 1940s, Bates began to explore the college campus market with stylish patterns that would appeal to college students. They formed a student Consumer Board to provide feedback on newly developed patterns. One of the couples who participated in this panel were recently married Yale students George Herbert Walker Bush and his young bride Barbara. After selecting a pattern called Victoria, they graciously agreed to appear in a 1948 ad campaign which ran in Vogue Magazine. Film footage and a copy of the ad are archived with other presidential memorabilia at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.
In addition to colonial-themed white-on-white counterpanes, the 20th century Bates Company loomed a broad and colorful array of blankets, spreads, and curtains. Lightweight 1950s blanket-style covers featuring train, farm and western themes are scarce and very desirable with collectors. In very good condition, expect a starting price approaching $75. If your taste is 1960s-retro, you can find vibrant yellow, orange, green or turquoise woven print spreads with contrasting fringe. Size and condition will drive the asking price, but these items range reasonably between $25 to $50.
For devotees of French-style matelassé, a long-standing favorite is the Queen Elizabeth Pattern produced to commemorate the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. This stunning Marseilles beauty presents a puffed floral design and medallion that replicate a centuries old design from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In excellent condition, a vintage spread can fetch $150-$200 depending on size and age.
The Bates Story is one of enduring craftsmanship from end-to-end. For a period of time, workers proudly wove loom numbers into fabric borders. Finished goods were packaged in impressive boxes bearing the Bates “Crown,” included a consumer registration form, and provided care instructions. Original packaging can add a premium to the buying price and value to collectors. When adding to your collection, examine the product edges for the distinctive Bates label to differentiate from other textile manufacturers.
Where is Bates today? As foreign imports pressured the 20th century Textiles Industry, Bates underwent reorganization and ownership changes. Fortunately, it did not compromise its workmanship standards or Made-in-USA heritage, still located in Maine. For more information on the Bates Company’s history, current offerings, and product care, reference the Bates Mill Store website at www.batesmillstore.com. Vintage Bates textiles can be readily found through antiques and collectibles dealers at antiques shops and shows.
Article originally published in the February 16, 2015 edition of Antique Week.