Carpet Weaving and Rug Making


In its early twentieth-century heyday, Philadelphia’s carpet and rug industry represented this nation’s greatest concentration of factories making household and commercial floor coverings.  The Public Ledger boasted that “two wards, in the northern section of the city, produce more carpets than the whole of Great Britain and Ireland.” Indeed, as early as 1882, those Kensington wards (the 19th and the 31st) held 141 carpet firms, valued at $12 million  and employing over 6,000 workers.

Lorin Blodget, the nineteenth-century industrial statistician, estimated that 90 additional carpet and rug works operated elsewhere in the region. Altogether, the sector’s workforce ran more than 4,000 hand looms and 1,200 power looms in 1880, using an estimated 30 million pounds of raw wool to create some 33 million yards of output yearly, selling for just over $21,000,000.

photograph of a woman smoothing a rug. the rug is proped up at a 45 degree angle and the worker is running her hands of the rug, from a standing positon next to it.
Textile worker Alvin Casey employs a process called “smoothing” at the ArtLoom Carpet Co. plant, 1948. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries )

A century earlier, at the time of the Revolution, Philadelphia already was producing virtually all the carpets and floor cloths made in Pennsylvania. The carpets were mostly narrow, woven hall runners, whereas large floor cloths were created by oiling or waxing heavy canvas (like sail cloth, also a local textile), then painting bright, geometric designs on the smooth surface. Both were handmade. A third variety, chain braided rugs, were the result of recycling rags, which women workers cut into strips and sewed into long, multicolor ropes, the foundation for rectangular, oval, and circular rag rugs.

All three varieties persisted as main elements in Philadelphia industries. Floor cloths became linoleum flooring, following a British invention of the 1850s. Narrow runners became “‘broadloom”’ carpeting, woven from tough wools on looms six and nine feet wide, and rag rugs held sway at the bottom edge of the market, without technological innovations, well into the 1920s.

When Edwin Freedley surveyed Philadelphia manufacturing in 1857, he reported some 2,000 carpet looms in operation (500 on rag rugs), almost all for hand-weaving. The only power looms were located at McCallum and Co.’s “Glen Echo Mills” in Germantown. John Bromley & Sonohn Bromley and Son, in Kensington, offered top-of-the-line Ingrain supers and extra fines at 60 to 85 cents per yard, and Damask Venetians, “fully equal to the imported,” at $1.15. All-cotton rag rugs, by contrast, could be had at 20 cents the yard. The area’s 2,000 hand weavers each earned an estimated $300 per year in the late 1850s (roughly $55,000 in 2014 dollars). Small wonder that one textile industry observer dubbed Philadelphia “the paradise of the skilled workman.”

Troubles visited paradise, however, not least during economic downturns. As household goods, carpets, and rugs were far from being necessity purchases when budgets tightened. Thus sales collapsed when the national economy crashed, as it did in and after 1873, once America’s railway boom went bust. Kensington carpet mills allied to announce rate cuts, but workers went on strike in response, setting off a decade of conflict and a decided effort by the larger firms to install power looms and hire “more docile” women weavers. Although the manufacturers rarely remained united for long, one result of the mid-1870s crisis was durable–creation of the American Carpet and Upholstery Journal, the trade’s core magazine, published in Philadelphia until the mid-1940s.

Hand looms remained effective in fine carpet weaving through the 1880s partly due to the difficulty of speedily producing complex designs, especially those generated through use of a Jacquard mechanism. The “Jacquard chain” was a sequence of punched cards, each of which represented one line’s setting for weaving an elaborate pattern. Holes on every card allowed  internal hooks each to raise one warp thread before the filling shuttle passed through. The next card then slipped into place, governing the next throw of the shuttle. Moving the chain rapidly, as a power loom would, risked weaving errors, so the hand weaver’s close attention to the process long remained essential. Reportedly, Charles Babbage transferred the punched-card idea from weaving to computing in 1839, having marveled at a silk portrait of Jacquard, produced by a 24,000-card set.

The 1880s’ erratic markets and owner-worker battles proved disastrous for small firms, especially hand-weaving ones, in carpets and rugs. Though roughly the same workforce occupied mill places in 1893 as in 1880 (about 11,000 regionwide), the number of firms dropped by two-thirds, from about 300 to 99. Whereas nearly 14,000 textile jobs could be found in Philadelphia’s suburban counties in about 1893, fewer than five percent of these (690) lay in the carpet trades. Then and thereafter, carpet weaving was a city business.

a photograph of two women using the automatic laundry service. the woman ont he left is taking a ticket from the woman on the right, who seems to be either picking up or returning her laundry
Mohawk Mills’ laundry service was intended to take some domestic burdens off women’s shoulders, albeit so they could work more hours for the company. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries )

The most important carpet mills outside Kensington were those of James and John Dobson, English immigrant brothers whose massive factory complex at the Falls of Schuylkill employed thousands in a set of ‘integrated’ mills. Unusual for Philadelphia, the Dobsons spun and dyed their own yarns, then used them to weave blankets, worsted woolens, mohair plushes (for upholstery), and a broad array of carpetings. When the factory complex burned spectacularly in January 1891, some 4,800 workers faced instant unemployment. Eight mills were lost, but the plush factory remained, anchoring a thousand jobs. Within a week, about a thousand of the male workers commenced sorting through the wreckage as the first step to rebuilding. Still, over half the Dobson workers, chiefly women, had to seek temporary positions in Germantown or Manayunk, until the mills reopened, one by one, during the summer. Six years later, as the effects of the mid-1890s depression wore off, Pennsylvania’s factory inspector counted over 4,500 workers in the Dobson’s four “departments,” half of them (2,245) running carpets. This force included 1,110 adult men, 720 adult women, and 425 workers under 21, of whom 135 were 16 or younger. Unlike largely-feminized cotton weaving, carpets relied on thousands of skilled male workers, even in the power loom era.

Such men readily (and repeatedly) organized trade unions to advance their wage scales (different piece rates for varied types of carpets), and, in hard times, defended them. Owners, allied in the carpet “‘sections”’ of the Textile Manufacturers Association, worked relentlessly to protect their profits and privileges in the early twentieth century. But a more potent threat than walkouts gathered by the World War I era: Carpet mill mergers and brand name promotions that gradually turned the market tide against Philadelphia’s high-end but largely unbranded goods.  With New England’s Bigelow-Hartford and New York’s Alexander Smith leading emergent price wars in the 1920s, Philadelphia mills ran full only in busy markets and were the first to feel the slack of downturns. When Bigelow hatched another carpet merger in 1929, not one Philadelphia area company was invited to join the new enterprise. Indeed, as branding became central to selling, only Hardwick and Magee, among the city’s leading companies, was able to establish national visibility.

The Great Depression greased the downward slope. Of 9,500 carpet workers active in 1925, just 4,000 remained at work in 1934. During World War II, carpets were anything but necessities. Mills either closed or turned to making blankets, tarpaulins, and other military fabrics. The postwar advance of a new technology, weft-inserted tufted carpeting, usually inexpensive in solid colors, expressed a 1950s modernism in home decoration that devalued the elaborate designs, the complex machinery, and the skilled workforce that long made Philadelphia the apex of the American carpet manufacture. The last survivor, Kensington’s Pennsylvania Woven Carpets, continued to produce woolen Jacquard-made Wilton specialties well past the turn of the twenty-first century, a fading echo of a memorable era.

Philip Scranton is Board of Governors Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers University-Camden. He has published widely on Philadelphia’s industrial history. He is researching steadily changing business practices in post-1945 developed, developing, and socialist nations. (Author information current at time of publication)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Alirene Mills Textile Plant, Frankford Creek

Library Company of Philadelphia

Built in 1903 along the Frankford Creek in present-day Juniata Park/Feltonville, the Alirene Mills textile plant was originally owned by John Bromley and was known as Bromley Mills until the 1920s. Still under the ownership of Bromley until at least 1929, the Mill grew rapidly. From one large building the plant quickly grew into the complex of structures in the lower right of this photograph from 1930. Bromley’s success at his original mill, on Lehigh and Frankford Avenues in Kensington, had enabled him to expand his operations to the north.

Worker Smoothing a Rug

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In this photograph from 1948, textile worker Alvin Casey uses a process called “smoothing” at the ArtLoom Carpet Co. plant. Smoothing is a preliminary step in the mass production of rugs and is intended to remove all creases and rolls from the material, so the rug will lie flat. Smoothing was a time-consuming process and, as shown here, was often done by hand on large swatches of rug that were elevated and sloping toward the worker.

In the early twentieth century, Philadelphia’s rugs and carpets were in high demand, but by the time of this photograph in mid-century, the manufacturers faced serious competition from centers beyond Philadelphia.

Laundry Service at Mohawk Mill

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Though male workers often slightly outnumbered female workers in carpet mills, there was still a sizable presence of female workers in the carpet industry. Female workers were seemingly in high demand at Mohawk Mills, which offered an automatic laundry service for employees. Though the service was open to all employees, it was instituted to combat female workers’ absenteeism. Often, women would miss shifts because they had duties to attend to at home, such as cooking, cleaning, and laundering clothes. This laundry service was evidence of the new demands placed on women’s shoulders as they entered the workforce en masse. The societal pressure to perform adequately as a worker and a homemaker led to many women working a “second shift” as wives and mothers after returning home from the factory. Mohawk Mills’ laundry service was intended to take some domestic burdens off women’s shoulders, albeit so they could work more hours for the company.

Star Carpet Mill

Built in 1882 and originally called Joseph Taylor’s Mill, this set of buildings on the corner of Montgomery and Howard Streets was first called the Star Mill in the 1891 Hexamer General Survey. The Original Star Mill was located a few blocks south of Taylor’s Mill, but it is possible that a relative, who was employed at the original site, brought his business to this site and carried the Star Mill name with him. In the beginning of the twentieth century, Arrott Steam Power Mills Co. bought this mill, but by mid-century it was unclear who retained ownership of the complex.

However, unlike many of Kensington’s mills, the Star Mill was not abandoned. The building was converted into loft apartments by the mid 1980s and continues as housing today. Popularly referred to as the Berks Warehouse by residents and neighbors alike, the Star Mill has become popular housing for Kensington’s young creative types, as many residents host live art and music shows or do amateur music recording in their homes. As Kensington and neighboring Fishtown seek to attract residents, many of the abandoned mills and factories of North Philadelphia have been converted into living and work spaces as an alternative to demolition and new construction.

(Photographed by Mikaela Maria for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

American Carpet and Upholstery Journal 1883-1942 (full set held at New York Public Library).

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Eighth Annual Report of the Factory Inspector, 1897, Harrisburg: The State Printer, 1989.

Blodget, Lorin. “The Wool Manufacture of Philadelphia,” National Association of Wool Manufacturers Bulletin, 10:1(1880).

Clendenin, Malcolm. Preserve Philadelphia!, Thematic Context Statement: Building Industrial Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Preservation Alliance, 2009.

Essinger, James. Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ewing, John S., and Nancy Norton., Broadlooms and Businessmen: A History of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Freedley, Edwin. Philadelphia and Its Manufactures. Philadelphia: Edward Young, 1859.

K.K. Goswami, ed. Advances in Carpet Manufacture. Cambridge, England: The Textile Institute, 2009.

Scranton, Philip. Figured Tapestry: Production, Markets and Power in Philadelphia Textiles, 1885-1941. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

———. Proprietary Capitalism: The Textile Manufacture at Philadelphia, 1800-1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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