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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Pioneer Furniture Salesman

Who built the first furniture factory in Grand Rapids may be somewhat of a question. Who was the first outside manufacturer to show in the Grand Rapids furniture market may be in doubt. Who is the oldest dealer to come here may be disputed, but no man argues the point as to who is the oldest living furniture salesman in Grand Rapids or in the furniture industry anywhere. Everybody concedes that Charles W. Jones, salesman for the Widdicomb Furniture Company holds the palm.

Charlie Jones, as everybody knows him, was selling furniture for the first line made in Grand Rapids and he began that career as salesman long before there was a Grand Rapids market, long before there were many salesmen on the road. When be began selling furniture he was not even classified as a salesman. They had but few of that classification in those days. Mr. Jones was working in the shipping room of Berkey Bros. & Co. when he first began selling furniture.

“They didn’t have any regular salesmen then,” says Jones. “I had an idea I could sell some furniture so they told me to go ahead and sell it and I did. When I had made my sale I went back to the shipping department until I had another inspiration. That was how I got started.”

That was a long time ago. Back in the late 1860s when young Charlie Jones first left the shipping department for a few days and went out to sell some of the product, so he would be sure to have some to pack and ship.


But it was in 1871 that young Jones really made his first trip and really sold some furniture. It was right after the Chicago fire and they needed furniture across the lake. The instinct of salesmanship caused Jones to see the opportunity and he secured the necessary permission to go to Chicago to try to sell some of the Berkey Bros. product.

He succeeded. Jones sold a lot of furniture, for those days, in the windy city, and among those to whom he sold was the Tobey Furniture Company, which George F. Clingman had been running for many years.

Next year the young man in the shipping department had another inspiration. He knew that if he could make a trip along the Lake Michigan shore he could sell more furniture. Again he set out and took the old Grand Trunk railroad to Grand Haven where he started. From there he went by boat and by wagon to Spring Lake, Muskegon, Pentwater, Whitehall, Montague, Ludington, and everywhere he sold furniture. Mr. Jones styles that as his first regular selling trip.

That same year was marked in Grand Rapids by another significant event. William A. Berkey, one of the Berkey Brothers, decided to retire from the company and organized the Phoenix Furniture Co. For one partner of the firm to retire then was a somewhat different matter than 1927, when Jones was being interviewed. It was not a case of one of the partners buying out the other and paying cash. It was then a case of dividing what they had. Therefore, they had a lot of furniture to divide and to dispose of. Since Berkey Bros. & Co. had gained a considerable reputation around the country, letters were sent out to dealers announcing an auction sale of the furniture. That was in 1872; something like dozen or fifteen dealers came to Grand Rapids to buy at that auction.


“That was the first time buyers had come to Grand Rapids to make their purchases,” said Jones. “That was the first furniture market ever held here.”

I remember very well their coming,” he continued. “They drove down to the factory in horse drawn rigs, of course, and hitched at the hitching rail in front of the factory (located on Mill near E. Bridge in 1872). They came from a very considerable distance, too, and it meant a mighty long trip for some of them. Among those whom I especially remember were Matthew Brothers of Milwaukee, Seaman of Milwaukee, W.J. Haney of San Francisco, F.J. Comstock of St. Louis, Marcus Straus of Detroit, and there were some others whose names I don’t remember.

“Soon after that I became a real salesman and went upon the road. From 1873 to ’75 I sold the chairs then produced by Grand Rapids Chair Co. and from 1876 to 1880 I sold the Phoenix Chair Co. of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In 1880 I came with the Widdicomb Furniture Company and have been here ever since.

“In those days all our furniture was shipped in the white. Every retail dealer had his own finishing room and finished his furniture to suit his own ideas. The retail stores were, for the most part, funny little places as compared with stores of today. The front was probably a clean, bright little place with the bureaus, commodes, and beds lined up against the walls, a pile of mattresses and springs at the rear, and the chairs hanging around on hooks from the ceilings. But back of the store would be the finishing room where every dealer was putting on whatever finish pleased his fancy.

“Nor did we sell suites then. There was no such thing as suites. We sold beds and bureaus and commodes and chairs, but none had any relation to the others. Most of the dealers bought their beds where they could make the best buy and their commodes somewhere else, and their bureaus in still a third place. It was just a matter of making the best bargain they could, and not of buying suites with matching units.


“William Widdicomb, when I came with him was making the round cornered spindle beds and all of them went out in the white and knocked down. Mr. Widdicomb used to advertise by circular how easily these were shipped and how easily they could be put together.

“I think the first finished furniture that ever went out from Grand Rapids was shipped by Berkey & Gay in 1871 or ’72. They had taken the contract to furnish the new Pomona Hotel at Spring Lake, and they shipped that furniture to Spring Lake all set up and finished. It was in the early 80s before the shipping of furniture became at all general.

“You smile when I talk about shipping to Spring Lake and making selling trips to Grand Haven, but don’t forget it was not so easy to get around in those days as it is now, and a trip to Spring Lake was quite a journey.

“When you traveled any distance you could only go where and when the railroads ran with perhaps some little side trips by wagon. We didn’t have sleeping cars then, and I remember making a trip through Iowa where there were just two trains a day. One left at noon and the other at midnight. If you missed the noon train you hung around until midnight or later, catch that train and then sit up in the cold, dirty cars until you reached your next stop. You might land in a town late at night or early in the morning and then be obliged to rout out the landlord of the hotel to get a room.

“You had to be a salesman then. Nobody was trying to buy your merchandise. Moreover, Grand Rapids was not known as a furniture center except right around the middle west, and if you got outside that circle it was necessary to explain that Grand Rapids really produced furniture and could get it to the dealer you were trying to sell.


“When I went to call on dealers there, they just laughed at me and said there was nothing but woods and Indians out there in Grand Rapids; that they couldn’t make furniture here, and if they did the Indians would likely go on the warpath and kill everybody before it could be shipped out of the woods.

“And a sale was a sale, too. It didn’t amount to much in dollars. A $200 or $300 order was a big one, and you went around with your chest stuck out a foot if you took an order for as much as $1,000. I spent three solid days with a hard-boiled dealer in Iowa once. I was selling chairs for Grand Rapids Chair Co. and had made up my mind I was going to sell this fellow a lot of chairs. He wouldn’t listen to me for a long time. At the end of three days of arguing, however, I finally took an order for around $1,500. I didn’t have to work for two weeks after that.

“We didn’t sell on Commission then. I often wonder how some of the salesmen would have enjoyed it in those days. Salesmen got $50 a month salary and their expenses, but any time you spent over $4 a day for railroad fare, hotel bill and everything combined, you took it out of your pocket. The boss wouldn’t stand for anything to exceed that. Two dollars a day for the hotel was about the top price, but that usually included meals for everything was American plan then.

“The first time I paid $3 a day for a room with bath all the rest of the boys wanted to know for what millionaire I was working that I was allowed to spend that sum of money for my room and three square meals a day. It was preposterous and they predicted all sorts of dire happenings to me for sending in such a large expense account.”

Charlie Jones is on the job today. He will be as busy as any of the youngsters during this 100th Market, and he will sell as much furniture as any of them.

Excerpted from the Grand Rapids Herald, December 26, 1927, page 13

Note: Charles W. Jones, born in 1852 died April 25, 1933 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

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