Date of this Version
Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts
In the fall of 1935, a newspaper editor traveled from Oklahoma City to Atlanta to attend a baseball game, and along the way encountered a stretch of road near Dalton, Georgia known as Bedspread Boulevard. He recorded his experiences in his daily column: “Twisting through northern Georgia late Saturday afternoon, dodging cotton wagons and trying to get an eyeful of the gorgeous tints that glorified the turning trees in the mountains, I thought I saw a washing strung on a line by the roadside. Soon another flashed past. Then they followed in regular succession. . . . Is it possible they get no breeze down here and they have to dry their sheets by getting the rush of wind from the passing cavalcade?” The editor soon realized that what he saw was not the week’s washing, but tufted bedspreads. This roadside product thrived with the increasing numbers of tourists traveling on the Dixie Highway, the newly established route linking the Midwest to the Deep South. Over the course of the twentieth century, automobile tourism, the popularity of the Colonial Revival style, and evolving technology each impacted the interconnected histories of the tufted bedspread industry and the main road through northwest Georgia.
The origin of the tufted bedspread industry is well known but difficult to verify. Possibly because the industry was viewed as women’s work during its early history, little formal documentation survives, if it ever existed. The traditional story of the industry begins with a visit by a twelve-year-old girl from near Dalton to her cousin’s home in 1892. There Catherine Evans (1880-1964, later Catherine Evans Whitener) saw an antique candlewick bedspread. Intrigued by this textile, but unable to find an elder relative who knew the technique used to make it, she eventually devised her own method of tufting. In 1895 she made her first tufted spread, in 1896 her second, and in 1900 her third, which she presented to her brother as a wedding gift. Later that year she sold a spread to her brother’s new sister-in-law for $2.50, which initiated the multi-billion dollar tufted carpet industry in Dalton. This account of the history appeared in print as early as 1925, and by mid-century was featured in nearly every article about the industry and was frequently told by Evans.
Deviations from the traditionally accepted version of the origin of the bedspread industry do exist, however. An article from 1925 sets the date of the beginning as about 1905, while two articles from 1929 set the starting date as circa 1919. One article relates an alternative version of the origin, attributing the beginning of the industry to a young woman named Jane Roberts Heath. Mrs. Heath noticed an announcement for a prize offered in the county fair for “an old-styled bedspread,” and using a technique learned from her Scottish grandmother, she submitted a tufted spread and won the prize. In this version of the story, Catherine Evans saw Heath’s spread, copied it, and with her friends sought a market for tufted spreads. Possibly both accounts, and potentially many others, are partially true, and are all part of a larger revival of handicraft traditions. However, the timeline of Evans’s story fits with other accounts of the development of the tufted textile industry, and despite discrepancies in the details of the various accounts, the story of her single-handed founding of the bedspread industry is a significant and integral part of the identity of that industry and the succeeding carpet industry.