Pendleton Mill Tribute Series: J. Capps and Sons – 1892 to 1917

 

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The last mill in our series of blankets paying tribute to the Golden Age of the Trade blanket is the J. Capps and Sons Woolen Mill of Jacksonville, Illinois.

Our friend Barry Friedman, the foremost historian and scholar of Native American Trade blankets, has concluded that the very first blankets for the Native trade were manufactured by J. Capps and Sons in 1892. Barry has come to this conclusion through painstaking research that only a truly obsessed person would perform, so we trust his findings.

j-cappsmill1865The J. Capps & Sons Woolen Mill in 1865

Joseph Capps arrived in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1839, only 21 years after Illinois became a state. He opened a wool-carding business, to which he would add spinning machines, looms and other weaving machines to become a fully operational weaving mill. As his business grew, so did his family; sons Stephen, William and Joseph would become partners in the firm, and carried on the business after Joseph’s death in 1872.

The Capps & Sons mill produced plain bed blankets, men’s suitings and other woolen goods throughout its years of operation. They also produced blanket overcoats.

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Production of the Trade blanket ceased in 1917, when the mill’s production was diverted to the needs of WWI.

The first sales records of “Indian blankets” appears in Capps’ business records in 1892. In 1893, the blankets are first mentioned in their marketing materials. The company apparently operated under three names: J. Capps & Sons, Ltd., the Jacksonville Woolen Mills, the American Indian Blanket Mills. Despite the name, at no time were Native Americans involved in the design or weaving of these blankets. The patterns were mostly designed by Portuguese weavers who worked at the mill.

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For our Mill Tribute series, we reproduced seven J. Capps & Sons, Ltd. designs. Capps designs remain much the same through their decades of production, and they produced surprisingly few patterns over that time. The designs make little use of the curvilinear abilities of the jacquard loom, keeping to “straight-line” patterns. To quote Barry: “With no other company that produced Indian blankets over so long a time do we see the continuity of design and pattern…A Capps blanket from 1915 looks very much like a Capps blanket from the 1890s.”

And again, we wish to make it clear that while Native Americans were enthusiastic customers for these elegant blankets, they were not involved in the design or manufacture of these patterns. The Capps names are listed for reference only.

Capps 1 – retired

We chose a rarity for our very first Capps tribute blanket. It is unnamed and uncatalogued in the Capps literature, but was sold in at least three color combinations. The original of this bold and beautiful version was produced circa 1910.

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Capps 2 – retired

Capps referred to this as the “Cheyenne Basket pattern, a Riot of Color.” You can see it over the arm of the woman in the ad above.

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Capps 3 – retired

Capps called this the Shoshone pattern, and the orginal version is a favorite among collectors.

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Capps 4 – retired

This bright design was called “A Typical Moqui” by Capps.

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Capps 5 – retired

An exciting pattern done in traditional colors, this was a consumer favorite in our Mill Tribute series. In the Capps catalog, it is called the “Kiowa Rattlesnake” pattern.

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Capps 6available here

Another rarity provided this pattern, called “Navajo” in the Capps literature.

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Capps 7 – Available here

For our final Capps tribute, we chose the pattern they called “Papago.” The original Capps version is a favorite among collectors of vintage trade blankets for its graphic boldness and overall symmetry.

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Our thanks to Barry Friedman for his research and writing. You can learn so much more about the Native American Trade Blanket from Barry’s books:

Chasing Rainbows

Still Chasing Rainbows

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Mill Tribute Blankets by Pendleton: Racine Woolen Mills of Racine, Wisconsin

In 2010, Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced our Tribute Series, paying homage to four of the American Mills that thrived during the Golden Age of Native American Trade blankets. Today, we will talk about Racine Woolen Mills, known for their intricate patterns. 

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In 1865, a Racine company began producing textiles under the name Blake & Company under the leadership of Lucien Blake and John Hart. In 1877, the company incorporated under the name of “Racine Woolen Mills—Blake & Company.” Racine Woolen Mills went on to become the premier producer and marketer of Native American Trade blankets.

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Racine was well-established by 1893. Records show employees of 150 skilled weavers and gross sales of $300K, which was an robust amount for the day. Racine’s fringed shawls were produced under the “Badger State” label. These earliest shawls are relatively subdued by today’s standards, mostly plain with an in intricately designed border. Photos of these vintage shawls show the superior drape of the fabric. They were extremely popular with Native American women.

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Native American women in Racine’s Ribbon-pattern shawls

Each of the companies in our tribute series has its own trademark specialty. Buell is known for faithful reproduction of Native American weaving patterns. Oregon City is famed for fanciful figural patterns and unexpected, riotous color. Racine Woolen Mills blankets are valued for unexpected, intense colors and intricate patterns. Diamonds, crescent moons, five-pointed stars, ribbon bows, compass roses, combs, waterbugs, pipes and feathers are woven with definition and clarity. The sheared finish of a vintage Racine blanket keeps the designs crisp and the hand smooth.

The famed Racine quality was maintained after production was taken over by another fine weaving mill, Shuler & Benninghofen, a mill that produced blankets for Racine until (approximately) 1915. Racine continued to merchandise and market trade blankets procured from different manufacturers until 1940 or so. They seem to have stopped offering wool trade blankets after that, though they kept on as a wholesaler of other styles of woolen blankets and goods until 1951, when Racine Woolen Mills closed doors for good.

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Hidatsa Man by Edward Curtis

According to our friend Barry Friedman in his book Chasing Rainbows, “The last ‘genuine’ Racine blankets were made in the 1930s, when John Hart asked Paul Benninghofen to make one of the old patterns. It was a special favor, because by then Shuler & Benninghofen no longer produced trade blankets and Racine hadn’t contracted to have them made there or anywhere else in years.” The Racine blankets beloved by collectors come from the golden years of 1893-1912, and the Pendleton Mill Tribute blankets are re-creations of blankets from that period.

Racine #7 (available here): Muted colors were rare for Racine. The original blanket was woven for Racine Woolen Mills by Shuler & Benninghofen.

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Racine #6 (available here): Tomahawks, Bows and Arrows

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Racine #5 (retired): Banded Diamonds

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Racine #4 (retired): A dizzying array of color, sawteeth and stars

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Racine#3 (retired, with a limited number available here): Crescent Moon and Shining Star

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Racine #2 (retired): Pipe and Feather – the other elements are two Navajo weaving combs, and an arrow under the pipe

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Racine #1 (retired): Class Y in the Racine catalog, “Yuma” in the Shuler & Benninghofen catalog

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Racine Woolen Mills has an interesting intersection with Pendleton’s history. In 1905, Racine Woolen Mills was furiously negotiating to buy a struggling mill in Pendleton, Oregon, with plans to increase trade blanket production by 300 percent. Those negotiations proved fruitless, and the Pendleton mill went silent in 1908. In 1909, Fanny Kay Bishop organized her three sons to take it over and transform it into the company we know today.

If Racine Woolen Mills had purchased the mill, who knows what the Pendleton story would have been?

 

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