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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Furniture City History.org


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Nelson, Matter & Co.

1870 - 1917

Main office and factory: Grand Rapids, Michigan. Branch offices and warerooms: Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York.

SEE ALSO Nelson, Comstock & Co. (Listed below)

COMPANY HISTORY

1870: Elias Matter purchases Tileston A. Comstock’s interest in Nelson, Comstock & Co. after Comstock’s death in 1870.

1873: Factory was constructed on Lyon Street adjacent to the company’s retail warerooms on Canal Street.

Ca. 1878: Warerooms open in Boston and New York City.

1882: Company opens branch office in Chicago.

1887: Company is incorporated. Products reportedly sold throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Australia. Lyon Street factory destroyed in fire.

1888: A new factory is constructed, which is the largest building in the State of Michigan west of Detroit. Since predecessor company Nelson, Comstock & Co. is reported to be the first in this area to use photo catalogs to sell furniture, it seems only natural that a large photo studio is included on the top floor of the new plant.

1916: Company replaces 1888 factory with modern factory in a new location.

1917: Company ceases business after financial crisis caused by World War I.

PERSONNEL

Early control of the company rested in the hands of president Ezra T. Nelson, vice-president Elias Matter, secretary James G. McBride, and treasurer Jay D. Utley. By 1900 control of the company rested primarily in the hands of prominent bankers and capitalists, including Willard Barnhart, Crofton Fox, James G. McBride and Roy S. Barnhart.

Charles H. Radcliffe came to Grand Rapids as Nelson, Matter & Co.’s designer in 1877, and stayed with the company until its collapse in 1917. In addition to designing pieces for the company’s regular production, he also designed special order goods for clients, including hotels and public institutions. In 1881 he designed a line of Queen Anne style furniture. He was eulogized as a practical designer, “who sought to furnish such styles as the market for the moment demanded” (Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, 1919). During this period, other designers were contracted for specific lines. Free-lance designer E. J. Knapp created furniture designs for Nelson, Matter & Co. in the 1880s. A 1903 Grand Rapids Furniture Record cites Harry J. New as designer of some of the company’s monumental oak sideboards.

Leopold Baillot, an immigrant from Italy and one of Grand Rapids’ most accomplished carvers, worked as a carver and foreman at Nelson, Matter & Co. for 15 years.

PRODUCTS

1870-1899: In 1876 Nelson, Matter & Co. exhibited a chamber suite of monumental proportions at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Standing an astonishing 18 feet high, the suite incorporated more than 6,000 pieces of solid ebony, mahogany, tulipwood, walnut, and onyx. In commemoration of the nation’s centennial, the bed and dresser in the set sported life-size finials of eagles in flight. Set into niches on the head and footboard of the bed, and on either side of the dresser’s mirror, stood carved statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other American patriots. The suite won Nelson, Matter & Co. a prize for excellence in workmanship. Following the fair, the set was purchased by a furniture dealer in San Antonio, Texas, who displayed it at his store to draw customers and tourists. 

Regular production pieces from this same period were smaller in scale, though sometimes nearly as massive and ornate. Made mostly in walnut and walnut burl, Nelson, Matter & Co.’s bedroom suites, sideboards, bookcases, secretaries, pier mirrors, hallstands, and office furniture reflected the preference for Renaissance Revival and Neo-Grec styles of the period. An 1878 article in The American Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and Carpet Reporter also made note of Nelson, Matter & Co.’s ebonized cherrywood chamber suites, which were decorated with gold lines and figurines. This same article indicates that, while they manufactured no parlor frames, they did upholster some pieces apparently made by other manufacturers.

Production in the 1880s favored the Aesthetic Movement. Pieces mixed elements of classical and Oriental form, with shallow geometric carving and stylized floral inlay. The wide range of forms offered included not only bedroom and dining room furniture but also parlor suites, onyx-top tables, couches, and lounges.

1900-1910: In 1900 the company made a complete line of fine- and medium-grade oak and mahogany furniture for the bedroom, dining room, and office. Nelson, Matter & Co. introduced its “Modern English” line in 1905. It featured Glasgow-influenced Arts and Crafts oak or mahogany bedroom and dining room suites. Though basically rectangular in form, the lines were softened by gently arching aprons, cut-outs, and leaded glass. A related bedroom suite was decorated with “Dutch marquetry” in sinewy Art Nouveau shapes and geometric patterns. At the same time, Nelson, Matter also produced a line of mahogany Colonial Revival furniture, which combined elements of the Empire, Queen Anne, and Chippendale styles.

1911-1917: The Empire – Colonial line was still listed in a 1911 Grand Rapids Herald article, along with mahogany Chinese Chippendale, satinwood Sheraton, and caned and white enameled Louis XVI. In addition to its residential furniture, Nelson, Matter was throughout its history a major furnisher of hotels. In 1916 it supplied the large new William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with white enameled furniture.

OTHER SOURCES

The Grand Rapids Public Library has in its collections some of the earliest Nelson, Matter photo catalogs.

MARKS AND LABELS

Nelson, Matter & Co. was the only Grand Rapids manufacturer to use a Knapps’ Dovetailer to join its case pieces. This machine cut a distinctive semi-circular scallop instead of the more common trapezoidal dovetail shape, making the dovetail one possible means of identifying Nelson, Matter & Co.’s products. The underside of marble from early pieces may be inscribed “NM,” signifying that the marble was cut by a contractor for Nelson, Matter & Co. furniture.

 

Nelson, Comstock & Co.

1863 – 1870

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Manufacturer of cabinets, sofas, and chairs. Believed to be the first furniture manufacturer to arm its travelling salesmen with photograph catalogs instead of miniatures of full-scale samples.

The source, with permission of the author, is Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, published by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 1998. 

Transcriber: Susan Hopkins

 

Full Details

TitleNelson, Matter & Co.
AddressGrand Rapids, MI
Year Opened1870
Year Closed1917
Locationlocation on map


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