December 6, 1879

Erastus Bigelow Dies

PRIMARY SOURCE: Essay, 1877
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On this day in 1879, Erastus Bigelow, the father of the modern carpet industry, died in Boston. Born in West Boylston, Bigelow and his brother followed their father into the textile business. After several inventions that mechanized production of suspender webbing and piping cord, Bigelow revolutionized the carpet-making industry with his invention of an automatic carpet loom in 1841. His Bigelow Carpet Company factory in Clinton produced various types of carpets much more cheaply than was possible with the use of hand looms, making carpets available to the middle class. Throughout his lifetime, Bigelow patented at least 35 looms. His interest in technology extended to educating future generations: he was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1861.

Bigelow's loom doubled the country's carpet production in the first year alone and tripled it by 1850.

Erastus Bigelow's parents wanted him to become a physician, but when his father's cotton weaving business failed, the son had to abandon his studies. By 1832 the 18-year-old had invented two machines that, inconsequential as they might sound, would revolutionize an entire industry, a handloom for making the webbing used in men's suspenders and a machine for making piping cord.

In 1850 Erastus and his brother Horatio set up a new business to produce an ornamental border material called coach lace. The abundant waterpower in central Massachusetts was ideal for textile manufacturing, and factory jobs drew a diverse ethnic population of Irish, German, Scottish, and English immigrants who worked alongside young women from New Hampshire and Vermont.

Erastus's first major invention was a power loom to weave coach lace. This early machine had most of the innovative features that would eventually be incorporated into his carpet looms. The success of the lace loom brought Bigelow instant recognition. In 1838 he and his brother incorporated the Clinton Company to manufacture the looms and use them to produce coach lace. Later that year, Erastus received another patent, this one for an automatic loom that wove bedspreads.

When Erastus Bigelow invented a power loom for weaving carpets in 1839, he not only reshaped the carpet industry; he changed the way Americans furnished their houses.

Buoyed by his success in mechanizing textile production, Bigelow turned his attention to the carpet industry. The nation's first carpet mill was established in Philadelphia in 1791. Soon other mills opened, many of them in New England. Until the 1840s, these mills used handlooms. Carpet weavers were skilled laborers who commanded high wages. As a result, woven pile carpets were beyond the reach of most eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century families.

When Erastus Bigelow invented a power loom for weaving carpets in 1839, he not only reshaped the carpet industry; he changed the way Americans furnished their houses. A hand weaver could produce two yards a day of two-ply ingrain carpet. A power loom could turn out 25 yards in the same amount of time. Bigelow's loom doubled the country's carpet production in the first year alone and tripled it by 1850. As the quantity went up, the price came down. It was no longer only wealthy families that could afford a carpet for their parlor.

Its carpets could be found in the White House, the U.S. Senate and House, the Massachusetts State House, New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Bigelow continued to innovate. In 1842 he patented a power loom that made it possible, for the first time, for a single worker using a punch-card device to weave fabrics with large-scale, elaborate designs. These too could be priced within the reach of middle-class families.

Erastus Bigelow never lost his interest in or talent for industrial innovation. In addition to his support for the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was a member of the London Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Bigelow's carpet company operated in Clinton from 1849 until 1933. Its carpets could be found in the White House, the U.S. Senate and House, the Massachusetts State House, New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and St. Patrick's Cathedral. Today the company is a division of Mohawk Industries, headquartered in Georgia. Erastus Bigelow's first automatic carpet loom is now part of the Smithsonian Institution's permanent collection.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Dictionary of American Biography.

The Erastus B. Bigelow papers, 1832-1879 are in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

A Century of Carpet and Rug Making in America, Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, 1925.

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