Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Tale of the Rugs

The elderly tend to have a habit of repeating stories over and over and I fear, in another concession to my accumulating years, I am probably guilty of the same thing. There are just certain incidents and experiences that for whatever reason find a special place in the mind or heart, and keep rising to the surface.

The other day I came across a postcard put up on Facebook of Chicago's Olson Rug Company, which I was somewhat surprised to learn is still in business—at least in name. But the huge, sprawling rug factory for which I worked in my first job out of college has long-since been torn down, along with the 20-some-acre “gardens” adjacent to it, which were something of a Chicago landmark and which drew generations of visitors.

I can't recall now exactly how I got the job, but I started it within a month or so of graduating from college and moving to Chicago in June of 1958. Exact details tend to blur over time, but my general memories are, I think, accurate.

I was employed in the customer service department, answering mail.

Now, the Olson Rug Company was unique in many ways. It made it's reputation by promoting its “broadloom” rugs—the word “broadloom” implying quality when in fact it merely meant that the rugs could be made in widths greater than the then-standard nine feet—and the fact that its rugs were reversible. But perhaps its strongest gimmick was that it encouraged prospective customers to actually send in their own wool, which would be recycled into the customer's new rug. Implied here was a huge cost savings which may or may not be a justifiable claim considering the cost and effort to send it in. And it was also implied even if not specified that the exact wool the customer sent in would be used in his or her new rug. Again, this may have been the case, but logic dictates this was highly impractical and unlikely. Nonetheless, it was hugely successful, and there were even occasional requests for rugs to be made out of pet fur, and if I remember rightly, I think they actually would accept it.

At any rate, I worked with a state of the art machine which was a precursor to today's computer. I sat in front of a typewriter hooked up to a device which would automatically type in standard paragraphs in response to the inquirer's specific letter. (“Dear Mrs. Jones: F1, G6, D-5.”) If further individualization were required, we would just type it in where indicated.

I loved reading and responding to the letters we received. Several were along the lines of the gentleman who wrote saying that he and his wife had a wide social circle and entertained constantly. He suggested that we provide rugs for his entire house, in exchange for which he and his wife would regale their guests with the virtues of the product. I think we even had a special letter of response ready for that one.

But my very favorite—and a letter which has become part of my lexicon of stories—was that from a woman who said that if we were to give her free rugs, she would tell us The Secret. She had, she said, offered to tell The Secret to the Sheriff, but he had been sitting on two chairs. To the best of my knowledge, The Secret remains safe with her.

I remember very little of the working conditions which I assume were pleasant enough—Mr. Olson, after all, had initially built the gardens for the enjoyment of his employees. Nor can I recall anything of the physical layout of the office, other than it was separated from the manufacturing areas. The only person I can remember working with was a nice guy named Tom. He and I made up the correspondence-reply department. He had a great sense of humor and he endeared himself to me when he said we should modify the standard paragraph that pointed out that, being made of wool, Olson rugs would not burn. He suggested we add a short sentence saying: “They do smolder, however.” I've always regretted that we didn't.

I was twenty-five years old, and the world was my oyster. I only wish I'd been more aware of it at the time. My experiences with the Olson Rug Company provided only the first in a long line of wonderful and not so wonderful work stories which I now delight in retelling.

Thank you for the opportunity to tell this one once again.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (


Kage Alan said...

You'll forgive me for suggesting this (because I know you have a number of ideas of your own), but with the richness of this post, D, I'm surprised you haven't had it as a plot element in one of your books. Or have you?

Imagine Elliot and John taking on an unsolved mystery decades old from a dilapidated facility and garden area such as what you describe. Only the ghost never could rest until the culprit was found.

With your own memories and experience in Chicago during that time period, you could paint an incredible picture of what once in comparison to what is.

Dorien/Roger said...

Now that is an idea well worth considering!! Thanks, Kage!