The making of carpets has only been a small cottage industry in Europe since around the 1300s. Before then, the true masters of the craft were found in China, India and Iran. The skills required to weave fine carpets came with the importation of skilled craftsmen from the Middle East. By 1600, the craft was flourishing enough to have its own guild.
This does not ignore the fact that individuals made rag carpets and other types in their homes. However, in England by 1700, certain towns began to commercialize their product. Carpets and/or rugs soon bore the names of the cities of their origins such as Ax Minster and Wilton. In France and Flanders, the favourite carpet style was the Brussels. While rag carpets remained common in Europe, the UK and North America, those for sale in the retail market increasingly began to be produced of jute, cotton and the ever-popular wool.
To help speed up the process of production, large looms became the norm. In 1791, an American, William Sprague (1750-1808) made the first large industrial looms. Based on an English design, they were fast but restricted. These looms could only weave carpets that were 69 cm (27 inches) in width. This required an extra step be taken for those who wanted a wider carpet. Workers actually sewed the strips together to produce a carpet of any desired width.
An American, Erastus B. Bigelow (1814-1879) improved on the industrial loom. He invented the power loom in 1839 and a broadloom in 1877. Over the following decades, these technological advances were to be refined and improved to address the growing demand for carpet.
Carpet Manufacturers in Guelph
Carpet manufacturers have played a role in creating and boosting the economy and profile of Guelph. They have been small, medium and large enterprises. Some, such as the Guelph Carpet and Worsted Spinning Mill were extensive in facilities and employed many Guelphites. Others, such as Clark and Thompson, were small companies that existed only a brief time as carpet makers before changing fields. Clark and Thompson became a dry goods retail store.
No matter what the size, the early carpet manufacturers worked most frequently, if not exclusively, with wool. This causes some confusion. George Murray, for example, was listed as a custom woolen mill in 1871 but, by 1886, he had joined with Richard Dodds to head the Dodds’ and Murray Carpet Factory.
Skilled and Unskilled Labour
Initially, and even much later than some industries, carpet factories needed skilled employees. The eight employees at Murray’s mill in 1871, would have been trained in working the looms, carding and weaving carpets. Such mills would have hired experienced workers – ones who were able to weave, card, etc. In fact, many hired their workers from the “Old Country.” They sent for weavers from Ireland, Scotland and Ireland. They might also require dyers, but some companies bought wool already dyed, for the express purpose of producing carpets.
Increased mechanisation reduced the need for trained and skilled labour in many aspects of production. However, no matter to what degree technology was used, these early carpet mills hired the cheapest labour possible. This included both women and children. Even when women did perform the same skilled or unskilled work as men, they never received the same pay rate.
Accidents in mills were common. This applies to both carpet and woollen mills during the 19th and early 20th century. With moving pulley, looms, kettles for dying, rollers and cog wheels, operating without adequate protective measures for workers, the fact accidents were not as high as they could have been speaks volumes for the skill of the workers. However, it can also indicate inadequate, incomplete and shoddy reporting.
The incidents that occurred in carpet mills ranged from minor scrapes to twisted ankles, broken bones, limb amputations and, in at least one case, death. Fred Pembleton, only 19-years-old, was taken by death when the cable of the elevator he was riding on at Guelph Carpet Mills snapped and plunged to the basement floor. In 1887, James Gow was working alone in the carpet mill when his clothing was snagged by a moving pulley. It drew him up towards the roof and certain death. The only thing that saved him was the cheapness of his clothing. What he was wearing at the time, ripped from head to toe, sending him crashing to the floor. Bruised and shaken, he lived to work another day.
No strikes are recorded for the small carpet factories. Since some only had a single employee, this is not surprising. They did occur at the larger carpet mills. Both the Burrows Brothers Carpet Factory and the Guelph Carpet Mills had strikes. While only one is recorded for the Burrows Brothers by their weavers in 1897. The Guelph Carpet Mills had at least seven strikes between 1900 and 1972. The earliest generally involved the skilled weavers – ingrain and Brussels carpet. In 1904, for example, 6 female and 7 male ingrain weavers went out on strike because they were receiving piece work pay for day work.
The results of the strikes varied. In the earliest examples, the employees received little satisfaction. In both the cases of the Burrows’ strike and the 1909 Guelph Carpet Factory strike, the duration – one year for the Guelph Carpet Factory workers, as well as the obstinance of the employers to bargain resulted in many workers seeking employment elsewhere. In later strikes, the employers and employees generally reached a mutually agreed upon settlement.
Guelph Carpet Factories: The List
The list below provides a snap shop of the various carpet manufacturers in Guelph. It does not include rag carpet makers. It also does not expand on companies with a listing in this book.
- Armstrong, J. and A.: Founders of Guelph Carpet Works or Guelph Carpet Factory. Located on Neeve and Cross streets. As early as 1890, they boasted 27 employees. For more information See Guelph Carpet (and Worsted Spinning) Mill.
- Burrows Brothers Carpet Factory: Located at the corner of Paisley/Norfolk, the Royal Carpet employed 15 men in 1890: see the Burrows Brothers
- Clark and Thompson: The Carpet House, lower (24) Wyndham – Carpet Manufacturers and Importers of all kinds of carpets and lace curtains (1889)
- Craig, William: In 1890, Craig had one employee. It is possible, he was related to a James Craig who, in 1882 had a rag carpet business at Neeve Street near the river.
- Guelph Carpet and Worsted Spinning Mills: 83 Neeve Street – Originally, two companies: Guelph Carpet and Guelph Worsted Spinning. The two combined in and remained in operation – although later under the name of Harding Carpet, until 1978.
- Guelph Rug Works: Found at 30 Cork Street in 1915
- Hazelton, JJ: referred to as rug manufacturers in 1896
- Hudson Company (by 1891): These carpet weavers employed 4 people in 1890/1891. In 1890, the company was owned and operated by Thomas Hudson on Eramosa Rd.
- McPherson Brothers (by 1894-1898): This carpet weaving company had a business on Norfolk Street. Their carpet works was owned and operated by three brothers: John A. McPherson, George McPherson and Robert G. McPherson in 1894-1896. In 1898, McPherson’s Carpet company merged with the Guelph Carpet Company with George becoming vice president in 1899 and into the 1900s.
- Murray, George (1871-1886): Wellington Street near Gow’s Bridge – Started off as a custom woollen mill before becoming the Dodds’ and Murray Carpet Factory
- Nicholson, Finley: He was a carpet weaver in 1890 on Quebec Street who provided work in 1890 for 7 people
- Ross, RW: In 1890, he was listed as a rug pattern manufacturer located on Upper Wyndham. In reality, by 1882, he had patented what he calls “The Ross Novelty Rug Machine. It took part in various exhibits in Ontario. He sold it across Canada along with various “regular patterns for rugs.” He might have extended his sales into the American market except for one issue. An E. Ross and Company had a patent on a machine called the Ross Novelty Rug Machine. The Toledo, Ohio company had registered it in 1881.
- Water Brothers (1885/86): Carpet Upholsterers Quebec Street at the corner of St. George’s Square
- Wellington Carpet Factory (by 1893): Norfolk street. This carpet establishment required additions in 1893 resulting from increase in patronage
In Guelph, as elsewhere, carpets were produced using looms. They were woven by skilled craftsmen until mechanisation decreased the need for skilled labour in all aspects of production. Some factories, such as the Royal Carpet Factory did not have power looms. This put them at a disadvantage when their American and local competitors did. The Guelph Carpet Factory, however, had a different approach. This included not only updating machinery but also responding to the demands of their markets and most popular styles e.g. Wilton, and using the latest material e.g. nylon. It is one of the many reasons why the Guelph Carpet Factory managed to survive into the 1970s while others, including the Royal Carpet Factory, did not.