Friday, January 23, 2009

Karagheusian's Gulistan Rugs

Memories of A. & M. Karagheusian

by Jack Ayvadian

Published: Friday January 23, 2009 in The Armenian-American Experience

The Gulistan label on the back of a vintage Karagheusian rug. The showroom on New York's posh Fifth Avenue was designed by Tiffany Studios.
A. & M. Karagheusian
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Freehold, N.J. - The name sounds like an Armenian college. Actually it belonged to the brothers Arshag and Miran (Mihran). Long before the Manoogians, Kerkorians, and Cafesjians practiced their philanthropy, the Karagheusian brothers served as president and treasurer of the Armenian General Benevolent Union.

In Turkey the Karagheusians' rug trade goes back to 1818. As the 19th century drew to a close the brothers fled the persecution which culminated in the Armenian Genocide. In 1896 they opened a small office in Manchester, England, to export cotton cloth to the Middle East.

Sensing the enormous potential of the American market, the Karagheusians set up a one-room office in New York City to import English cotton goods. However, they could not compete with American mills, which were producing cotton cloth of equal quality at lower cost. The brothers tried other short-lived ventures, such as importing mocha coffee and canary seed from Arabia.

In 1899 the brothers tried importing oriental rugs from Persia, which turned out to be a profitable venture. Their Fifth Avenue showroom was designed by Tiffany Studios. The next step was to manufacture their own orientals in America.

Freehold, New Jersey, a farm town rich in Revolutionary War history, was the chosen site. Here General George Washington had turned his retreating troops around and had chased the British back to New York.
The House of Lords

In 1904 the Karagheusians took over the former Rothschild shirt factory and drew up a contract with the townspeople. Freehold would pay the taxes for five years, and in several years' time the company would employ upward of 500 workers, most of them locals.

The brothers purchased power looms from Kidderminster, England, the center of the carpet industry. They also imported the first weavers and their families. With a part of England transplanted to Freehold, one wing of the plant was called "The House of Lords." A large spinning mill was built in Roselle Park, New Jersey.

In 1928 the Karagheusians developed a secret chemical process to add a soft sheen to their rugs, emulating the hand-knotted orientals from the Middle East. "Gulistan" ("Garden of Roses"), the brand name of this new rug, would be applied to all products and, eventually, the company itself.

High demand for the Gulistan rug in the Art Deco period called for tripling the size of the plant. More weavers, some scarred by World War I, were imported from England, bringing their frugal habits with them. Some chewed tobacco while operating the loom and before quitting time would place the wad on the window sill to dry in the sun. On the way home, they would put it in their pipe and smoke it. Double your pleasure?
Nationalized industry

The company's mill in Tientsin (Tianjin), China, built in 1923, became the world's largest producer of handmade Chinese rugs, employing 4,000 weavers. The Japanese seized it shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After Japan surrendered, the Chinese Communists overran Tientsin. The company was never able to regain its nationalized property.

World War Two brought drastic changes to domestic operations as well. As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Arsenal of Democracy," the company converted its looms to produce millions of yards of duck cloth, thousands of gun covers, tarpaulin, and machine parts for the Navy. Five hundred employees served in the military. A plane spotter's station was built on the fifth-floor roof and staffed by volunteers until the end of the Korean War.

Coming home from World War Two after three years with the Navy Sea Bees, I answered Karagheusian's call for "help wanted." After passing a color test, I spent a week practicing knot-tying. I started as a creeler tying in bobbins. If you tied a slip knot, the weaver might throw a bobbin at your head. Next I became a sparehand, tying in large beams of cotton or jute. Because I could type, I helped in the office.

As more veterans returned and the demand for housing increased, the expression "wall-to-wall carpet" came into use. New looms, twelve and fifteen feet wide, were installed in the greatly expanded plant, tended by 2,000 workers around the clock.
Fala's favorite corner

The company was a leading manufacturer of commercial carpet. Topping the list was a 20,000-square-yard order for Radio City Music Hall in 1932. Designing the fiddle pattern took six weeks. Very strict specs called for a 36-inch width, ten rows to the inch, and a cut pile over one inch deep. Years later, when a replacement was ordered, an estimated 55 million people had walked on the original installation.

Actress Jean Harlow sent a lock of her platinum hair so her carpet could be matched to it. Another order was filled for the actor Spencer Tracy.

The company carpeted the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and Pullman railroad cars, including F.D.R.'s private coach. A framed section of that carpet, labeled "Fala's favorite corner" after the President's beloved dog, was hung in the entrance to the Freehold plant.

Five miles of carpet were made for the new 45-story Socony-Mobil building in 1956. Two years later the company was awarded the order for the new Boeing 707 jets, again with tight specs as to weight and acoustical qualities. For safety purposes, a thin wire was wrapped with every fourth row of yarn.

In 1958, nine thousand square yards of carpet was ordered for the new Moore-McCormack luxury liners, the S.S. Brasil and Argentina.
The Revered Boss

Meanwhile, the South was wooing northern mills with modern, one-story plants, the proximity of the cotton fields, and, most of all, no unions. In 1952, the company acquired a tufting plant in Albany, Georgia. Five years later, another plant was purchased in Aberdeen, North Carolina.

Despite denials, the Freehold workers were getting the message. They said this would not have happened if the Karagheusians were still around. They spoke of the brothers with reverence, remembering the Depression years, when the company sent coal trucks to workers' homes.

In 1953 I was promoted to assistant foreman, then foreman of the Narrow Jacquard department, which operated about a hundred looms. It was so loud that light bulbs were placed on the walls, blinking signals as a way to page the workers.

The rug mill was closed in 1961. Four years later, the company was sold to J. P. Stevens.

The freight trains and trucks carrying Gulistan rugs to all corners of the country have long since vanished over Freehold's horizon. The looms lost their voice many years ago. As native son Bruce Springsteen sang in "My Hometown":

They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back

It's been 47 years since I saw that blinking bulb. I still miss that place. Thank you, brothers, for 14 great years.

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