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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Evolution of Furniture Making

by Arthur S. White

Mr. White arrived in Grand Rapids in the mid-1860s and worked as an editor, but he was not particularly familiar with the local emerging furniture industry. In 1879 he was engaged as a correspondent representing Grand Rapids for the Trade Bureau, a New York journal that served furniture and kindred trades. His recommendation came from Elias Matter of the Nelson, Matter Co.

White writes that newspaper writers of that day were underpaid, so he gladly undertook something that would add to his income. He was assured by William and John Widdicomb; MacBride of Nelson, Matter; John Mowatt, of Berkey & Gay; Charles R. Sligh; and L.C. Stow of the GR Furniture Co. that they would assist him in acquiring knowledge of the business. He began his employment with the Trade Bureau, never dreaming that his connection with the furniture trade would continue for thirty-one years.


My “copy” for the Trade Bureau was submitted to one of my friends, and the “bad breaks,” usually of a technical nature, were cut out before it was mailed to the publishers. On one occasion, however, my letter, hurriedly prepared, was forwarded to the publishers before my friends could review it. Frank H. Smith, had gained my confidence, and gave me a list of orders that the Phoenix Furniture Co., where he was employed, had undertaken to fill within a brief period that called for more goods than the company could have manufactured in five years. The letter was published as written, but a few days after the Bureau appeared in Grand Rapids, R. W. Corson, of Berkey & Gay, called me aside and pointed out how seriously I have been imposed upon by Smith, a practical joker. I have forgiven Smith many times for the trick he played on me, but fear I have never treated him quite right. My many attempts to practice entire forgiveness have not been successful, so far as he is concerned.

In May of 1880, MacBride suggested, “We need a journal to represent the furniture trade in Grand Rapids. Can you get one out for us?”

I replied that such a journal could be furnished if the manufacturers would guarantee a sufficient amount of support.

“Make an estimate of the cost of a monthly journal of from sixteen to twenty-four pages and bring it to me. I will talk the matter over with our friends in the trade, and learn what can be done.”

The estimate was prepared, and when MacBride had examined it he stated that the plan seemed feasible and requested that a contract for subscription and advertising for a liberal proportion of the amount necessary to start the enterprise be written and submitted to his firm for their signature.

William Widdicomb added twenty-five percent to the amount allotted to the Widdicomb Furniture Co.; Julius Berkey, for the Berkey & Gay; O.L. Howard for the Phoenix Co. and Charles R. Sligh of Sligh Furniture gave the enterprise substantial approval. The other manufacturers promptly accepted the plan and signed contracts for liberal spaces in the pages of the journal.

The name Michigan Artisan was chosen because it was my intention to make the publication representative of the furniture manufacturing industry in the state of Michigan.

From the perspective of a newspaper writer, who had the whole world to draw on for material, the trade field looked very narrow to me. My mental vision broadened with a study of the business of manufacturing and selling furniture, and now, at the close of thirty-one years (1911) I am under the conviction that I might have rendered more satisfactory service to my readers had I delved deeper for knowledge of the industry.


The factories operated by the manufacturers of furniture in 1880 were small; the machinery was so unscientifically planned and poorly constructed that it would not be considered worth floor space in the modern shop. Dust and shaving collectors were undeveloped, and dry kilns spoiled more lumber than was properly cured. Factories were not well heated—in many, only stoves for burning shavings and cuttings were used. The goods were so poorly finished that many retailers preferred to purchase stock in the white and finish the same on their own premises.

Designs were without character; the purpose of the designer was seldom revealed in his work. Whether he was unable with the materials and tools at hand to express himself, or whether he lacked knowledge or had no ideals, is of no consequence now. An idea of the consideration buyers visiting the markets awarded to the designs brought out by the manufacturers may be gained from the fact that it was the custom of many of them to have sketches made, at their private expense, by artists, of goods they desired to have made, and to seek contracts for their manufacture in quantities to meet the requirements of their trade. (Emphasis by author)


The advances in the industry made during the past thirty-one years could not be discussed in a single issue; therefore I shall conclude this short survey with a brief reference to the goods that were produced in 1880. Black walnut, cherry, and whitewood (stained black to imitate ebony), maple and ash were mainly used. The beautiful quartered oak was unknown, therefore unappreciated. Beading was commonly applied as an ornament, and in ebonized and walnut work the beaded lines were filled with stripes of gold. These added nothing to the appearance of furniture made of walnut, but gave a pleasing effect to recessed panels in ebony.

The dressers of chamber suites were generally called “French.” A three-drawer princess dresser of today, with small cabinets and drawers flanking the mirror on both sides, would have been called a “French” dresser in 1880. Tops of marble, mined either in Italy, Vermont, or Tennessee, often with beveled edges, were preferred and were considered necessary by retailers of medium and high-priced work. Ash and maple were consumed in the manufacture of low-priced furniture,

To “improve” the appearance of the beautiful white ash, strips of black walnut were nailed or glued to tops, posts, or pedestals, and occasionally weak specimens of line carving were in evidence. Maple was stained to imitate walnut, and the panels burled or grained by hand.

Hand carving, an ancient art in the Old World, was little understood, and only slightly developed in the United States, and the efforts to “decorate” the “fine” furniture of 1880 were not very successful. Veneers were used unsparingly, as was the glue that held them in place. Cracks in the wood allowed it to ooze through and form in hard lumps on the surface.

The head and foot ends of bedsteads were constructed of a series of recessed panels, divided by two-inch rails, surmounted with half-round tops, of unvarying form and sizes. Manufacturers would not consider a bedstead or dresser with a square top. The half-round top was as indispensable as the side rails. By placing wheels under one of the big beds and attaching a yolk of cattle, an excellent vehicle would have been provided for drawing in the corn and potatoes from the fields of a Michigan farm.


Thirty years ago expositions were held annually in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Buffalo, and other cities that were well supported by retailers of furniture. A part of the business of the manufacturer of furniture was supplying suites for such shows; large, heavy, showy stuff was required for this purpose, and not infrequently five or six suites of the same pattern were sold by a single manufacturer for exhibition in the cities named. One of these suites I remember quite distinctly; the headboard contained nine panels, five of which were lined up in a row from post to post. Four of the smaller panels were covered with veneer, while the five-in-a-row were carved in resemblance of broken cattails or stuffed sausages on the ends of sticks. The cutting of the ornamentation was very poorly executed, and a friend of the writer, in describing the suite, said the panels looked as if the carver had stood at some distance from the bed, and with barbs attached to the cattails, had thrown them against the panels where they remained.


In upholstered furniture the platform rocker held the center of the line. Nothings seemed to be so desirable. In Cincinnati, intense and bitter rivalry existed between Charles Kaiper and Streit & Schmitt. Mr. Kaiper and Mr. Streit had secured patents for springs to be used on platform rockers, and both claimed superiority. Finally a man named Bunker, of Chicago, invented and patented a spiral rocker spring so superior to those of Kaiper and Streit that he soon gained a monopoly of the business. There was but little difference in the construction of the Kaiper and Streit spring. Both contained the principle of springs used on carriages.

Mr. White added, almost as an afterthought, at the end of his article, “The cabinetmakers of 1880 were good workmen. Their part in the manufacture of furniture was well performed.”

Furniture Manufacturer&Artisan, January 1911, page 12-13



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