Everything’s better with a blanket
Jan 13, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
The days remain short and the nights chilly. During this long season nothing is better than snuggling up in a cozy blanket. This wintry tradition inspired me to learn more about America’s premier vintage blanket manufacturer: Beacon Blankets. So pour yourself a hot cocoa and get ready to see why everything’s better with a blanket.
I suppose you could say it all started with the Mayflower, but we’ll skip ahead a few generations! After arriving in the New World the Owen family made their way to New Bedford, Massachusetts where they purchased the Beacon Manufacturing Company in 1904. With about twenty employees, they set about making cotton, household essentials. Their “camp blankets” became the darling of their product offerings – a warm alternative to the high-maintenance wool versions of the time. Within fifteen years their workforce had exploded to nearly 1,000 and they were America’s number one producer of blankets. In addition to selling their own label, their products were in all the top department stores of the day: Sears, Macy’s and Montgomery Ward’s. If you were a 20th century housewife the odds were strong you had at least one Beacon blanket in your cedar chest.
Demand soared during the 1920s thanks to their statement patterns and durable material. Popular motifs included Art Deco themes, animals, flowers, ombré color tones and patterns based on Navajo art. The company made over 1,500 different styles, but one look captured the heart of little boys everywhere. From the 1930s to late 1950s Western themes were incredibly fashionable and Beacon blankets had the best corral scenes in the business. These rustic, cowboy vignettes became the backdrop for the all-American childhood bedroom. Buoyed by the mass appeal, it’s estimated that by 1930 Beacon was producing 21 million blankets a year – which is staggering when you consider the technology available at this time.
If you’re the lucky owner of a Beacon blanket, here’s a tip for keeping it clean and pristine!
This prolific manufacturing era wouldn’t have been possible without the hill country of North Carolina. The company was already looking to expand South and, while on a train ride, Charles Owen II was struck by the region’s natural beauty. A few years later the entire company relocated and the tiny town of Swannanoa, North Carolina became home to the world’s largest mill. The Owen family transformed the area into a company town – building infrastructure such as churches, gas stations, and a bank. Employees were even able to rent a company apartment for $1 a month. To put it in perspective, this was during the Great Depression when the average month’s rent was $18. Amazingly, by the time of WWII the workforce had already doubled to about 2,200 folks. During the war, like many companies, Beacon shifted focus to making products exclusively for the war effort. After WWII Beacon’s offerings were synthetics-based, having made the switch from cotton almost entirely. This change in textile, along with a change in taste, signaled Beacon’s decline. The brand has experienced a revival in 2013, offering vintage patterns ready for modern times.
If you’d like to start collecting Beacon blankets, there are a few things to note. Firstly, while Beacon was the most productive manufacturer it wasn’t the only shop in town. This, when combined with the fact most blankets were marked with fragile paper labels, makes authentication a bit tricky. As with any vintage collectible, pristine and labeled pieces retain the highest value. When it comes to colors, the shaded / ombré style was a calling card for Beacon. This technique was difficult to achieve, making these examples more collectible. Any strong colors (reds, blues, greens, or blacks) along with Navajo-inspired patterns are highly prized. Art Deco examples are also considered a highlight for any collection. The brand’s immense popularity and durability make it a rewarding (and cozy) option for beginning collectors.
In the early days Beacon’s marketing department created a now-famous tagline – “Beacon blankets make warm friends.” I can’t help but smile as I read this pitch. There’s something Charles Schulz-esque about it for me, making me recall “happiness is a warm puppy.” As we embark on a new year, I hope we all find a little extra happiness and warmth (not to mention a great vintage blanket to cuddle with!).