Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Life is like a blanket too short.

You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night."
          ~Marion Howard
Let's have a little trivia for December start-up...December starts on the same day of the week as September every year and ends on the same day of the week as April every year.  I am sure after the madness of Gray Thursday and Black Friday, minds may have to let that float around upstairs for a little bit, and you probably just want to crawl back under the blanket!

Which brings me to today's history lesson...the blanket!  Do you know there was a man named Blanket (no, not Michael Jackson's son!) who supposedly "invented" the blanket?  From my research a fascinating narrative...

In England, Bristol’s most colorful Victorian newspaperman, Joseph Leech, wrote an extremely fanciful account of the blanket’s invention/discovery. In a story in Brief Romances from Bristol History (1884, a collection of what were originally articles in the Bristol Times) he imagined ‘Edward’ Blanket struggling to make his weaving business a success. One very cold night he and Mrs B were shivering in their bed covered only by a ‘camlet’ of goat hair. Then he had an idea; he went to his loom and took a length of woollen cloth he had been working on that day, and covered the bed with it. They slept snugly, and the following morning he told Mrs. Blanket that he was going to go into the bed-covering business.

“My dearest dame,” said he, “I shall have the honour of giving a name to the article that will make my fortune and carry down my name to all future ages. Let others devote themselves to making cloth to keep them warm by day; be it my business henceforth to manufacture only that which will keep folks warm by night.”

Leech went on to call for an annual Blanket Day, in which Bristol would celebrate Mr Blanket’s most excellent discover/invention.
 The words ‘blanket’ and ‘blanchette’ (plus assorted other medieval spellings) had been in use for at least 150 years before Edmund Blanket’s time. The Blanket family themselves might have got their name from being makers of this cloth, just as medieval blacksmiths acquired the surname Smith, and bakers became Bakers.

Weaving was medieval Bristol’s main industry, but it was tightly regulated by the guilds and the corporation to maintain the quality of the finished cloth and protect the interests of the weavers and associated trades.  King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) started to change all that. He wanted the vast English cloth industry to be more profitable, all the better to tax it to pay for his wars. He restricted the wearing and importation of foreign cloth and the export from England of raw wool. He encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England in order to build up the cloth industry. Some of them came to Bristol; the Blankets may have been Flemish themselves, or they may have brought in some of these foreign weavers.

In the late 1330s, Thomas Blanket (Edmund's brother) set up several looms at his property in Tucker Street, just south of the Bristol Bridge. He was effectively setting up a factory, employing weavers rather than working as a self-employed artisan. Presumably his weavers hadn’t had to serve long apprenticeships in the traditional manner. The guilds and the Corporation didn’t like this and tried to put a stop to it.
The King was not happy with the guilds and issued the following order:
“The said Thomas and the others who have chosen to work and make cloths of this sort, and also the workmen, should be protected and defended from injuries and improper exactions on that account. Order you, that you permit the said Thomas and the others who are willing to make cloths of this kind to cause machines to be erected in their own houses at their choice for the weaving and making cloths of this kind … “

The direct personal support of the King means Blanket was no mere clothier but a very significant figure. The Corporation got the message and hurriedly performed a u-turn, and Thomas Blanket was made a local official in 1340. Blanket’s importance and royal support would have made him a well-known figure.

Beds were not common, and most poor people probably slept on the floor (perhaps on straw), fully or partially clothed, though getting completely naked to sleep was often favoured where possible as it helped get rid of the lice which infested most of our ancestors’ bodies.

The more prosperous classes owned beds and may have slept in linen sheets under animal skins. Woollen cloth, meanwhile, was expensive stuff, produced by artisans  until entrepreneurs like Thomas Blanket came along.

Blanket’s industrial production methods, however small they were by modern standards, may well have gone some way towards making woollen bed-coverings more affordable and fashionable.  So, as you get all comfy in your bed, tonight, you can thank Mr. Blanket...and the King...for giving all of us affordable comfort!

 

“I like to hear a storm at night. It is so cosy to snuggle down among the blankets and feel that it can't get at you.”   ~L.M. Montgomery 

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