If you enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving table, look forward to a white wedding, baptismal, or simply appreciate the beauty of lace curtains and linens, you might owe more than you think to the Quaker Lace Company.
The Quaker Lace Company of Philadelphia was founded in 1889 and started out as the Bromley Manufacturing Company, founded by the three sons of John Bromley. Mr. Bromley was an English carpet weaver who immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1840s and later became the patriarch of one of the city’s largest textile enterprises. To large-produce lace for America, the Bromleys dipped into the profits they had made on their carpet business in England. This allowed them import not only expensive lace looms, but also the skilled weavers to produce them from Nottingham, England. In 1894, they renamed the business The Lehigh Manufacturing Company, and moved into an impressive manufacturing complex at the corner of 4th Street and Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Later on, they opened another factory at 22nd and Lehigh, said to be the largest in the world.
Finally incorporated as the Quaker Lace Company in 1911, the firm quickly gained national attention as the nation’s lace industry leader. Q L’s ability to successfully market machine-made lace as a stylish lifestyle for middle-class homes and women’s fashions, made it a household name. By the early 1900’s, Quaker Lace came close to surpassing the regal place of Nottingham, the place from which they obtained their looms, weavers, and designers. One of their more popular brochures proclaimed: “America has taste and individuality that should find expression in an American lace industry. Why not try to develop here a more perfect lace than that produced in Nottingham and Calais, the lace markets of the world?”
The success of Q L was due in large to their ability to adopt to meet their middle-class customers’ desires for lace that was both luxurious and durable. Q L was a success, as the mechanization of lace-making offered average Americans the unique opportunity to wear and decorate their homes with what was previously a luxury item. Another very successful brochure invited the used of lace in fashion, “…no part of a woman’s wardrobe which may not be beautified by the use of Quaker Laces,” citing the “originality, authoritativeness and timeliness” of their designs.
One of their most admired designers lured away from the English and European industries, was designer Frederick Vessey. Recognizing the public’s desire for beauty and durability, the company released one of their most successful brochures yet, one that emphasized the technical features of Quaker Lace nets that allowed their curtains to resist pulls, stretching, and distortion after washing without losing that essential quality of transparency.
During the second world war, the public’s purchasing power and interest diminished. This was one of many swings in the textile industry. As the market for lace curtains continued to decline, the firm turned to producing practical goods like mosquito or camouflage netting for the military. In 1932, it began its first production of lace tablecloths, a favorite post-war item that would forever be associated with Quaker Lace.
Quaker Lace was not protected from the shifts in the textile industry, and in the late 1980s the Nottingham looms at the 4th and Lehigh factory became silent, as the manufacturing moved to plants in Lionville, Pa (Chester County), and Winthrop, Maine.
The Philadelphia Mill continued to operate by bleaching, dying, cutting, and packaging the famous Quaker Lace tablecloths and curtains. The Mill remained open largely due to their innovative chemical process that allowed their tablecloths and curtains to withstand dozens of launderings without losing their shape.
It was the closure of a substantial amount of the department stores that retailed the Quaker Lace products that finally pushed the company into bankruptcy in 1992.
The Quaker Lace rights, name and patterns were purchased by Lorraine Linens, which marketed their unique tablecloths and curtains until its own bankruptcy in 2007. The original manufacturing plant of Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, was abandoned after the bankruptcy and eventually was destroyed by a devastating fire on September 19, 1994.
In 2003, the Julia de Burgos Middle School was built on the site.