Bristol Carpet Mills, Bristol Pennsylvania
The Bristol Carpet Mills played a role in the economic revitalization and industrial development of Bristol, helping to turn a depressed canal town into a major late-nineteenth-century manufacturing center. Along with the Grundy Mill and other smaller businesses, the Bristol Carpet Mills represented the positive impact of Joshua Pierce, industrialist and founder of the Bristol Improvement Company which made industrial sites available on the Pennsylvania Railroad near the Delaware Canal. Thomas Leedom, owner of the Bristol Carpet Mills, was an important manufacturer whose carpets were well received at the Centennial Exhibition. His incorporation of new technologies gave the Bristol Carpet Mills significance within the carpet industry. The building forms one of the principal landmarks of Bristol on the Philadelphia and Trenton line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and, with the adjacent Grundy Mill, recalls Bristol's importance as a nineteenth-century industrial center.
The phase of industrial development ushered in by the Bristol Improvement Company culminated the third major period of Bristol's growth. Located along the Delaware River approximately 17 miles north of Philadelphia, Bristol was originally a river town blessed with the additional waterway of Mill Creek. The two vital water sources led to Bristol's first economic peak which coincided with its settlement at the turn of the eighteenth century. Even its first grant of land in 1667 was for a mill site, giving the name Mill Street to what became the chief business street of the town. Bristol's second major phase of prosperity occurred in the 1820s and 1830s with the exploitation of the anthracite coal beds in the Lehigh region and the completion of the Delaware Canal with Bristol as its southern terminus in 1834. As the critical transportation link between the waterways from Easton to the roadways to Philadelphia, Bristol became a mid-nineteenth-century boom town. But, this period of growth turned into one of depression in the mid-1850s when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad from Bethlehem to Philadelphia took over the shipment of coal.
Bristol's rejuvenation began with the onset of the Civil War when the Government became a major purchaser of commodities; clothing, boots and shoes, arms and armaments; and created a major boom for Pennsylvania industry which was near the war front and connected to the major railroads, The new Keystone Forge Company and Bristol Woolen Mills thrived during and after the War when the Morrell Tariff Act, protective legislation, was passed. Seeing the potential for industrial development offered by Bristol's favorable location and the Morrell Tariff Act, Joshua Pierce, originally from Bristol, returned to the town from western Pennsylvania. In 1868 Pierce purchased a tract of 49 acres, the majority of which was located between the Pennsylvania Canal and the Philadelphia and Trenton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pierce established his own wool and felt manufacturing mill, the Livingstone Mills, and was instrumental in establishing the Bristol Foundry, the Pierce and Williams sash and planing mills, and the Bristol Rolling Mills. In 1876 Pierce took a major step toward the further industrial development of Bristol by forming the Bristol Improvement Company whose purpose was "to offer facilities to manufacturers desiring to locate here by erecting a building for their accommodation, thus encouraging the growth of manufacturing industries in the borough." As part of this arrangement, all factories were exempt from borough taxation for their first ten years of operation. Pierce purchased most of the company's 1,200 shares, representing $60,000 of capital. With that money, he erected five mills between 1876 and 1887 on the property he had purchased in 1868. The last mill to be erected was the Bristol Carpet Mills for Thomas Leedom and Company.
Thomas L. Leedom, born on a farm in Bucks County near Newtown, gained his first experience in the carpet business in Cincinnati with the department store of Shilito and Company. At the close of the Civil War he moved to Philadelphia where he associated himself with Aaron Shaw. Trading as Leedom and Shaw, they opened a retail carpet store at 910 Arch Street in 1865, then expanded their operation the following year by adding a wholesale or jobbing department at 635 Market Street. In 1870 the firm first entered the manufacture of floor coverings at a plant established on Howard Street.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia grew into the nation's leading carpet manufacturing center, producing $19,000,000 worth of the total $32,376,168 of American carpets in 1875. According to Philip Scranton, one of the prominent characteristics of Philadelphia's textile industry in general and the carpet industry in particular was its diffusion into small specialized establishments. These individual companies clustered in the vicinity of Howard Street and Lehigh Avenue at the juncture of Frankford and Kensington. Along with Leedom's mill were those of Dornan Brothers, William S. Taylor, Park Carpet, John Gay, Putnam, Hamilton, Walker T. Sykes, and the immense Bromley factory which was designed by Geissinger, predecessor to the Ballinger Company. According to the 1910 Bromley Atlas, Leedom's company still operated the much smaller factory on Howard Street within the carpet district; that factory was renovated in 1914 by architects Heacock and Hokanson who had designed the Grundy Mill in Bristol in 1910.
Carpet manufacturing had been advanced in the mid-nineteenth century by Erastus Bigelow's steam-powered looms and the Jacquard attachment used for patterns, Subsequently, the Crompton-Knowles Loom Works perfected the high-speed Knowles loom that could produce ingrain fabrics from 27 inches to 12 feet wide. Using the most up-to-date technology, the Leedom plant produced this wide floor covering that satisfied contemporary Victorian taste for wall-to-wall carpeting. At the Centennial Exposition, Leedom, trading as Leedom, Shaw and Stewart, was commended for "a creditable exhibit of extra super Carpets and damask Venetians of good designs, especially noticeable for low prices." Leedom relocated his looms to Bristol in 1885 in response to severe labor disputes among ingrain weavers and the economic incentives offered by the Bristol Improvement Company. Although located outside of the city limits, Bristol was close enough to Philadelphia to remain a part of the regional manufacturing center.
At the Bristol Carpet Mills, Leedom expanded his operation to include weaving, dyeing and yarn spinning, and eventually wool preparation all under one roof. It was here that Leedom and Company became the nation's foremost producer of Wilton rugs which are a close, short, cut-pile carpet, described in the 1888 Encyclopedia Britannica as having "elastic velvet pile, which could be woven into an infinite variety of patterns". As such, they were the appropriate vehicle for the popular taste of late-nineteenth-century America. By the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Leedom and Company installed the first seamless Wilton loom in America, ideal for large wall-to-wall carpets, and was also the first company to install the wide ingrain looms for the manufacture of art squares or druggets. In 1901 Thomas Leedom and Co. was Bristol's second-largest employer, having 650 men and women in its factory. The company retained its regional industrial importance well into the twentieth century: the 1919 Industrial Directory of Pennsylvania lists Thomas Leedom and Company as the only carpet mill in Bristol, with only one other, relatively small firm making carpets in all of Bucks County. Except for the period during World War I when the Bristol Carpet Mills produced 400,000 yards of cotton duck for tents for the U.S. Army and 1,000,000 yards of horse-blanket lining, the factory produced nationally-merchandised Carpets at Bristol through the 1940s.
Although Joshua Pierce incurred financial difficulties at the turn of the century that necessitated his selling the land of the Bristol Improvement Company to its tenants, his vision of an industrial manufacturing center focussed around major factories such as the Bristol Carpet Mills came to pass. His development scheme transformed Bristol from a depressed canal town of 2,500 people and an assessed valuation of $500,000 in 1860 to an industrial borough of 10,000 people producing $12,000,000 of products in buildings with an assessed valuation of $3,000,000 in 1910.
The Bristol Carpet Mills consist of two ranges of buildings, flanking a broad alley, that opens off Beaver Dam Road. The largest of the grouping parallels the tracks of the Philadelphia and Trenton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and includes the three-story main weaving mill (1885, Number 2 on our plan); the yarn dying and spooling rooms (1885, Number 2a) which are the same construction phase, but four stories in height; and at right angles the one-story dye house (1885, Number 3). Beyond are two later structures, the carding loft (circa 1890, Number 4) and a connecting wing (circa 1895, Number 2b) that joins the carding loft to the main building. Across the alley, but joined to the original building by bridges is a second three-story weaving loft (circa 1900, Number 1) and its adjacent one-story wing (circa 1915, Number la). The remainder of the site is open.
The buildings of the Bristol Carpet Mills occupy a significant site on the railroad, and near the center of Bristol, an old mill town on the Delaware River. (Plates 20-21, Nole, Atlas of Bucks County, 1891) That town had evolved because of its position on the river, with its early industries and major buildings near the river or on a canal that early industrialists had constructed in the 1830s. The position of the mill, near the railroad marks the shift in the town's growth, with most of the later construction oriented towards the railroad, which as at Manayunk followed the old course of the canal, absorbing its customers. The site itself is roughly triangular, with Beaver Dam Road forming one border and the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad on the other long side. The original block of mill buildings was erected paralleling the railroad, with a second range running parallel to the first. With ancillary structures they roughly conform to the shape of the site. As could be anticipated, administrative offices were placed on the end of the mill closest to the town center, establishing the hierarchy of industrial society.
It is the main building that sets the tone for the entire site and gives such striking architectural character to the complex. It is a massive three-story parallelogram stretching some 500 feet, with its gable end facing the corner of the site toward town, and crowned by a continuous monitor down its entire length. Large windows lighting the gable end are arranged six across each of the three stories. They are set off from the purplish walls of Delaware River stone (perhaps shipped by barge from the New Hope area) by radially laid segmental brick arches. These, with the massive brick cornice carried on short corbel tables, establish a coloristic and textural variety that contrasts with the irregular texture and tone of the oversized rubble stone of the wall construction. The walls are handsomely laid up with carefully chosen relatively square blocks at the corners and at piers, and were originally pointed with ribbon pointing.
The side elevation continued the same general pacing of the fenestration for two-thirds of the length of the building, to the great chimney which marked the location of the central boilers that heated the complex, provided motive power for the looms, and dried the yarns after dyeing. There the windows changed size representing the insertion of a fourth floor, and making it clear that multiple stages in the manufacturing process occurred within the same building. Accounts suggest that the one-story building (Building No. 3) attached to the north end of the main building, but oriented at right angles to it served as a dye house; the proximity of the four-story zone (Building No. 2A) with its small windows, and its extensive heating pipes indicates its use as a drying and spooling space, with finished yarns being loomed into carpets in the high ceilinged portion to the south (Building No. 2). Such a linear scheme conformed to the norms of nineteenth-century manufacturing and is consistent with the arrangement of the buildings.
Within five years, atlases show an additional two-story structure with a roof monitor (Building No. 4) to the north, which housed another process in the production of the raw materials; a picking and carding loft that prepared raw wool for dyeing. Originally separated, these lower, specialized buildings were eventually joined by another low gable-roofed building (Building No. 2B) that linked the entire complex along the rail siding, making it easy to envision raw wool being unloaded at the north end of the site, and then moving within the building ever southward until it was shipped as finished carpet from the south end, across the nation.
All of these buildings are unified by a common palette of materials; the purplish Delaware River sandstone, the red brick segmental arches over the windows, wood sills, and the massive brick cornice with wood crown moldings, perhaps indicating a single designer and even a continuous workforce. The only significant change of detail on the early buildings is the absence of the "kick" at the end of the gable of the main building on the gable ends of the dye house and the wool processing wings, and probably reflecting the more massive walls of the taller main building. Fenestration varied depending on function; large paned two-over-two sash lighted the administrative offices, while workspaces typically received smaller paned oversized twelve-over-twelve sash, with the exception of the spinning and drying rooms which had smaller windows and four light casements on the upper three stories.
The success of the Bristol Carpet Mills led to the construction of an additional rank of loom lofts paralleling the main building and separated from it by a light court. These were joined by two-story-high bridges of light steel framing, clad in corrugated iron sheeting over wood studs. The added wing conformed to the original building in size; six registers of windows on the gable end. and length, some 23 bays in length (versus 25 for the main building) and height, and used the Original palette of materials, but lacked the brick corbel table and cornice. In addition, the "kick" of the gable end, which denoted the mass of the wall was also dropped, suggesting that these motifs had been stylistic, rather than structural and arguing for a date after 1900. Unfortunately, we have found no atlases between 1891 and 1919, but a date in this century seems likely. Mill construction tended to be conservative, and this is no exception. One more modern space was attached at the northwest corner of the new loft, a saw tooth roofed single-story room which perhaps was constructed when the mills were converted to production of army uniform material during World War I.
Interior spaces are directly related to function and to the form of the masonry envelopes. The main building is subdivided by a row of square wood posts that support the centers of long, built up wood beams that span the interior and carry wide wood planks in turn overlaid with diagonal hard maple flooring that both gave rigidity to the structure and permitted the easy sliding of heavy, bulky objects. The upper floor of the loom loft was lighted by a glazed monitor and spanned by uninterrupted wood trusses which at a later date were irregularly supported with light iron columns. These support massive built up beams on which the roof monitor rests. Light rafters carry a plank sub-roof which is supported above the small-paned monitor sash. Extensive diagonal bracing between trusses indicates an awareness of the issue of wind bracing and suggests a level of sophistication that is unusual in mid-1880s mill design.
The one-story dye house (Building No. 3) is also covered by a single-span roof; but of light iron trusses supporting a wood subroof. Infilled truss pockets at every other pier make it seem likely that the original roof structure was replaced, perhaps as a consequence of damage caused by the steam and corrosive substances of the dying process. It was probably not unlike the roof of the slightly later wool preparation shop (Building No. 4). It is also lighted by a monitor, but its iron sash and iron framing indicate that this is a later alteration.
The "new" loom loft used the same construction system as the old building with massive center posts placed at every window pier, instead of every other one on the original mill. Again the top story was spanned by trusses, but because it did not support a monitor, it has not had to be supported and indeed, it carries the massive hoist for the freight elevator with no apparent difficulty.
Interior finishes are extremely plain as befitted their industrial purpose. Stairs typically were placed near the middle of floors, and opened directly to the outside. Those of the early building merely were constructed of wood, and separated from the mill space by vertical board and batten construction. The turn of the century new loom loft placed the stair in its own masonry fire tower, indicating a growing awareness of modern fireproof construction and again arguing for a date of construction in the twentieth century. Walls are plastered and whitewashed and windows are typically inserted directly, without benefit of side trim. For some reason, the windows of the original building were altered consistently, by rebuilding the original flat sill with a sloping sill. This conformed to the later windows of the new loft, and may have been intended to make cleaning easier. Continuous runs of pipe served as a direct and efficient steam heating system, and are still in evidence in many of the spaces.