Many are familiar with the graceful elegance of a Bates bedspread, but few realize that one classic Bates design can boast a presidential background!
The Early Beginnings: George Washington’s Choice
George Washington, the first president of the United States who served from 1789 to 1798, presented his wife Martha with the forerunner of the bedspread as a wedding gift. President Washington had no way of knowing the history he was creating. Centuries later, the now legendary pattern gifted to Martha was recreated and became known as “George Washington’s Choice” when it was introduced by Bates in 1940. Today, it’s called “Martha Washington’s Choice.”
George and Martha were married January 6, 1759, a time when bedspreads embroidered solely in white cotton thread were commonplace. Later on, their popularity surged, since owning a white candlewick counterpane, as they were called, became a mark of social standing.
Ever Wondered About the Term “Candlewick” Bedspread?
But the road to a complete bedspread was a long one, as these early years saw no industrialization. Cotton was picked by and then hand carded – fibers were placed on one brush, while the other brush gently ran through the cotton, pulling the fibers in one direction. Then the cotton was spun into threads. Both processes were very time and labor intensive.
On a large cut of muslin, running stitches were sewn into a pattern, passing over a small twig or stick, which was later removed. The muslin was immersed in hot water to shrink, holding the stitches in place. The fluffy cotton thread used in the making of a bedspread was the same cotton thread used as a candlewick – hence the term “candlewick bedspread.”
Weaving and sewing work were done in homes, but Benjamin Bates, who was born in 1808 and grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts, changed the course of history. He moved to Boston, where the first canal had been built that used water to power machinery in a textile mill. Benjamin Bates was the largest investor in the mill that began business in 1854 – and became known as Bates Mill.
Soon, Bates became Maine’s top employer. Another interesting historical fact – Bates contributed a large amount of money to the Maine State Seminary (later known as Bates College); the first young women graduates funded their own education through their work at the mills.
Bates Manufacturing Co., A History of Excellence
The Bates Manufacturing Company wove a historic page in history with their first basic bedspread in 1858. The mill continued to grow, and new looms produced such cloth beauties as satins, brocades, damasks and Jacquard’s.
A unique page in history turned when a representative from Bates Manufacturing toured Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s plantation, where he saw Martha’s beloved spread. He thought Bates Mills could produce one – and nearly two years later it was done – and called “George Washington’s Choice.” It was offered for sale in 1940. Years later, it became known as “Martha Washington’s Choice.”
But it didn’t fly off store shelves. So Bates went back to the drawing board, made a few innovations, including double-knotted fringe – and the popularity took off. Its slogan was: “loomed to be heirloomed,” since the bedspread became a choice wedding or anniversary present.
By the 50th anniversary of the Bates Bedspread, popularity waned, with company executives citing cheaper copies as hurting their sales. In 1992, the City of Lewiston foreclosed on Bates Mill for unpaid taxes.
In 2010, the Bates Mill Complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, according to the Wikipedia, the now-rehabilitated Bates Mill Complex is home to a number of establishments.
Between 2011 and 2012, The Lofts at Bates Mill converted Building No. 2 into mixed-income apartments after receiving low-income housing tax credits by the Maine State Housing Authority. In 2017, a healthcare technology company leased space to establish their East Coast center in Bates Mill Building No. 5 (which had briefly caught on fire back in 2009).
Which Bates Bedspread Do You Prize Most?
Today, perhaps no other Bates bedspread is prized more than their incredibly decadent, richly textured cut velvet bedspreads. One look at the trio of images below and you’ll notice a stark contrast between these and the classic Martha Washington’s Choice designs. In fact, there is no comparison. Some people refer to these as “chenille” but they are not the chenille that you might be thinking of.
Instead of plush chenille tufts adorning a cotton base, these bedspreads featured intricate cut velvet designs atop rayon-type groundcloth. A couple photographic examples are shown for you here. The sky is the limit in terms of pricing with these – at auction, it is not uncommon to see a Bates cut velvet bedspread sell for at least several hundred dollars.
Colors are rich, varied and vibrant and guaranteed to make a statement in an decor. Some people like to refer to the blue and red colorways as “psychedelic” – a fitting description, don’t you think? It leaves me wondering, though, what George Washington would think of these…
Morgan Jones Wasn’t the Only Manufacturer of Rosebud Chenille Bedspreads
Did you know? Bates also made their own beautiful versions of the pops and rosebuds bedspreads similar in design to the Morgan Jones vintage popcorn bedspreads you’re probably familiar with.
And finally, no historical summary of Bates would be complete without mention of their beloved woven style bedspreads, often available in a brilliant array of colors and delightful designs that graced 1950s bedrooms everywhere.
We’ve included some iconic ads we’ve collected over the years here for your enjoyment. Talk about a walk down memory lane, right?! How times have changed.
If you don’t have a Bates bedspread in your collection of textiles yet, be sure to add one – you will appreciate their fine quality – and the opportunity to own a piece of our wonderful American textile history. Whether you’re on the hunt for an eyepopping cut velvet showstopper or you’re more fond of the classic “Martha Washington’s Choice” designs, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Save for the lighter fabric weights of the earlier pops and rosebud bedspreads, virtually all of the Bates bedspreads we have in our collection are true heavyweight quality – no thin, cheap material with this manufacturer.
We have countless Bates woven pieces from the late 1940s and 50s, and it’s amazing to see how rich the colors remain with virtually no fade at all, and with an excellent, strong fabric. And if you want to find out what your vintage Bates bedspread is worth, here’s a great resource for you courtesy of Bates Mill Store.
We’ll leave you with this quote from a post on the Bates Mill Store website:
“Part of the fun in owning a vintage bedspread is knowing the rich history behind it. These treasured heirlooms not only contain memories and family stories, but chronicle fascinating evolutions of specified craft.”
Truer words were never spoken, wouldn’t you agree?
Have a fun fact, memory, or other detail on Bates? We’d love to hear from you! Reach out anytime.
Charlotte Jane is an avid collector of antique and vintage linens and other textiles, with a particular fondness for vintage chenille bedspreads. Her purpose? To infuse beauty into every corner of our magnificent Mother Earth – and to encourage others to do the same. She believes we all have creative gifts and that by allowing this inner creativity to guide us, we deepen our connection with other Souls – and our understanding of our own unique Paths….