In 1932, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Beacon Manufacturing Company used misleading practices to violate the rights of Native American weavers. The FTC objected to Beacon’s marketing of its popular line of “Indian blankets,” which deceived the public into believing the company’s products to be hand-made by Native Americans, rather than manufactured in textile mills in New Bedford and Swannanoa, North Carolina.
In 1904, Charles Owen and his son, also named Charles, took over a defunct mill in New Bedford from Mount Pleasant Manufacturing, which failed before the building was complete, and from the original Beacon Manufacturing Company, which closed a year after its founding in 1896. The Owens installed Jacquard looms, imported from Europe, which were capable of weaving intricate, multicolor designs, enabling the company to launch its line of blankets with geometric patterns based upon Native American weaving.
The younger Charles Owen was inspired by the work of Eanger Irving Course and other American artists whose paintings romanticized the Native people and crafts of the American southwest. Their art depicted Native people using traditional tools and techniques in natural settings. Part of the appeal to Owen may have been the contrast between these imagined settings and the reality of industrialization in the Northeast. Course’s paintings often included Native weaving and textiles, which formed the basis of Beacon’s designs and marketing.
Beacon distinguished the different grades of its “Indian blankets” with names like Wigwam and Sachem and included illustrations of Native American weavers in its advertising. Beacon supplied retailers with cutout figures of Native weavers, designed to display blankets as if emerging from a hand loom, rather than from the mechanized looms in its mills. Weavers from the Navajo and Hopi tribes, among others, asserted their rights under the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914. The FTC found that Beacon was “advertising falsely or misleadingly and misbranding or mislabeling” its products to create unfair competition, and ordered the company to cease and desist from those practices.
By 1934, when the FTC ruled against Beacon Manufacturing, the company had almost entirely moved its operations to North Carolina. In 1925, Charles Owen II had opened a mill in Swannanoa to take advantage of the South’s lower costs and cheaper, non-union labor, producing a courser brand of blankets from wool, rather than the softer cotton used in New Bedford. Facing bankruptcy from loss of sales during the Depression and the effects of the FTC’s ruling, in 1933 Beacon consolidated its operations, moving the New Bedford mill, brick by brick, and its looms to Swannanoa, where it operated until 2002, at one time the largest blanket manufacturer in the world.
Today, Sid Wainer & Son, produce wholesalers, occupies the former location of Beacon Manufacturing, and Beacon Blankets, especially their “Indian Blankets,” are prized by collectors.