Collecting Mania: Camp Blankets

In the late 19th century, brightly colored woolen blankets were used by Native American women and men as cloaks and robes, gifts, ceremonial items, bedcovers and even as an indicator of financial status. Textile manufacturers at that time produced a substantial range of graphic blankets, also known as trade blankets, for the Native American people. It wasn't too long after that the popularity of these textiles found its way among the general public in the form of light-weight camp blankets.

Camp blankets, although inspired by trade blankets, were not manufactured for the Native American market. Sold through such department stores as Montgomery Ward, Sears, Roebuck, W.T. Grant, and JCPenney, these decorative interpretations of Native American designs were devised to complement Western-themed interiors, a popular look in the first half of this century.

Originally made from cotton, then cotton and rayon blends, then 100-percent synthetics in the waning years of their popularity, camp blankets were touted as superior to their woolen predecessors based on their ability to provide lightweight warmth, resistance to moth damage, nonallergic properties, and easy washability. The most prolific manufacturer of these blankets was the Beacon Manufacturing Co.; others included Esmond Mills, Well-Bilt, and the American Woolen Co.

Serious collectors seek out pre-1945 blankets, a period when innovation abounded and synthetic fabrics were not widely used. While there may still be a chance to pick up a $5 find at a tag sale, the good cotton blankets more often sell for anywhere from $100 to $600; wool examples from $300 to $1,500. Outstanding early trade blankets may fetch as much as $1,800; great camp blankets, $900. Rarity of design, colors, and condition all weigh into price.

Labels offer the most definitive guide to a blanket's maker, but few have survived through the years. Borders and edge treatments can also offer clues to a blanket's origins:

  • Early Beacons have a half-inch rayon satin binding (often shredding by now).
  • Later Beacons have a natural selvage edge on the sides and sewn edges at the head and foot.
  • Esmonds may have a rayon satin blanket binding on all four sides.
  • Other geometric blankets of unidentified origin have satin bindings in widths from one to two inches.
  • Pendleton featured rounded corners with blanket binding early on, then squared them off. Some Pendletons have deep tied-wool fringes and are labeled "women's wearing shawls."
  • Some Oregon City blankets are bound in narrow felt; less costly versions were blanket-stitched all around.
  • Capps used narrow felt bindings, mostly red but sometimes brown, to encase all sides.

Trade blankets featured elaborate designs, woven using a double-shuttle Jacquard loom that allowed for the use of two colors per row, making designs that appear in positive and negative on opposite sides. Design categories include:

  • Striped - stripes in varying widths and combinations
  • Banded - geometric designs arranged in horizontal bands against a solid-color field
  • Center point - a central single- or multiple-design motif within a band at the blanket's midsection
  • Overall - one repeating motif covering the surface
  • Nine elements - three rows of three motifs each bordered with partial motifs of the same element
  • Six elements - two rows of three motifs
  • Framed - geometric elements in each of the four corners, found only in blankets manufactured by Pendleton Mills, of Pendleton, Oregon

Caring for old trade and camp blankets is crucial to maintaining their value. Wool examples should be rolled when stored, protected from moths, and dry-cleaned or washed in very cold water, then laid flat to dry to avoid rippling the edges.

For cotton blankets, follow these timeless tips, excerpted from a paper label found on a 1930s camp blanket made for the W.T. Grant department store chain: "Wash separately with a mild neutral soap in lukewarm water, pre-spot soiled areas, let the suds do the work, and rinse in at least three clear waters. Then hang evenly lengthwise on the line, without clothespins. Avoid hanging in the sun. Stretch blanket frequently both lengthwise and widthwise while drying. Use a soft brush once the blankets are dried to restore the fluffy nap. Press the bindings (but not the blanket) with a cloth and warm iron."

The designs found on camp blankets were similar to trade examples but less elaborate. Pictorials - featuring "cowboys and Indians" motifs, tepees, Indian children, and totem poles - are found most frequently on cotton blankets. Pendleton, the best-known manufacturer, produced more than 200 trade blanket designs. Other makers included Jacobs/Oregon City, of Oregon City, Ore.; J. Capps & Son, of Jacksonville, Ill.; Buell, of St. Joseph, Mo.; and Racine, of Racine, Wis.

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