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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Furniture Markets Move Westward

Grand Rapids, which celebrates its Hundredth Market in January 1928, is one of the oldest furniture centers in the United States. To mark in a fitting manner this 50 years of unsurpassed skill in wood workmanship, the Grand Rapids Market Association is making elaborate plans, not only for the entertainment of market guests, but for the education of, and the actual sales benefits to, dealers. Grand Rapids is one of the oldest furniture market places in the United States, but it is not THE oldest. According to best information, the first informal exposition was help in Boston. The accompanying article attempts to trace the movement of furniture markets westward.

Furniture has been bought and sold in the United States ever since the Pilgrims parked around Plymouth Rock. It must have been a scarce article at the time, of course, as early inventories mention only tables, chests, chairs, and bedsteads.

Prosperity increased, however, and before the eighteenth century was ushered in the wealthier folk around New York and other seaports were buying the best offered by European markets.

During the eighteenth century, several cabinet makers began operation in America. The business of furniture making then seems to have been divided into various groups: joiners, turners, chair makers, Windsor chair makers, carvers, and cabinet makers. It is doubtful, though if there was a sharp line of differentiation, because it is a matter of record that some of the chair makers fashioned dressing tables and other article.

James Rivington of Hanover Square, New York, advertised in 1760, “Household Furniture for the Year 1760 by a Society of Upholsterers, Cabinet Makers, Etc., containing upwards of 180 designs consisting of Tea Tables, Dressing, Card, writing, Library, and Slab Tables, Chairs, Stools, Couches, Trays, Chests, Tea Kettles, Bureaus, Beds, Ornamental Bed Posts, Cornishes (probably cornice—ornamental moldings), Brackets, Firescreens, Desk and Bookcases, Scones (Sconces?), Chimney Pieces, Girandoles (ornamental branched candlestick or lighting device), Lanthorns (lantern), etc., with Scales.”

Late in the century, books on prices were published. In Philadelphia this was called, “The Journeyman’s Cabinet and Chair Makers’ Philadelphia Book of Prices.”

It was not until the last half of the nineteenth century, however, that furniture manufacturers began to ship their products to a center where it might be purchased by merchants for resale to the consumer. Exhibits were quite informal.


Boston, it is generally conceded, was the first market place for furniture. The Boston Furniture Exchange, reputed to be the first in this country, was established in 1874 with a membership of about 150 manufacturers. This also was known as the New England Furniture Exchange. Dealers all over the country were visited by manufacturers represented in the exchange. For a decade after the establishment of this association, Boston maintained supremacy in the wholesale distribution of furniture. But it was not long before the development of western industry began to make itself felt and trading in the old city began to wane.

Today (1928) Boston has a new wholesale and manufacturing district on Canal, Portland and Friend Streets, a few blocks nearer the North Station terminal than the old manufacturing center. This recent development has few factories devoted to the manufacture of case goods, but practically all leading New England furniture manufacturers have salesrooms there. Be that as it may, their exhibit spaces are far outnumbered by showings from others and western markets.

Boston is still a powerful factor in the furniture manufacturing industry. Here Colonial reproductions have their most realistic and most profuse expression. Manufacturers in that locality have gone further and further toward specializing in it since the ascendancy of other markets.

Perhaps one of the chief reasons for Boston’s decline as a national furniture market was the fact that it could not distribute well, not being centrally located. It does now, however, conduct a market in Mechanics Hall, which is of interest principally to New England Dealers.


The market center then moved westward. Cincinnati, whose Swedes and Germans were becoming very skillful cabinet makers and furniture workers, felt that its almost ideal location as a possible center of distribution would enable it to become the chief furniture market of the United States and, about 1877, interested manufacturers leased Music Hall for the city’s first formal exposition. But only furniture made locally was exhibited.

Cincinnati soon defeated its own ambitions to become the furniture center, ably assisted by other factors. In the first place, the Ohio city was too close to the South, where post-war trade was almost at a standstill. A certain element in Cincinnati was not progressive—modern machinery was lacking to hasten and better production; local manufacturers were determined that concerns outside Ohio were not to be represented at the market. For these reasons, buyers who wanted the best were not especially attracted, and Cincinnati faded slowly out of the national market picture.


It was in the year 1876 that Grand Rapids first began to make itself known as an important center for the distribution of fine furniture. For many years, this busy little Michigan city had been working with wood; it was a sawmill town and the step to manufacturing was only natural. The Philadelphia Centennial, in 1876, was an opportunity for several Grand Rapids furniture makers to exhibit their wares, which attracted a great deal of favorable comment from eastern buyers. Following the exposition, Berkey & Gay sent eastward a carload of furniture, but it was rejected—not fine enough for eastern merchants. But, far from discouraged, the company sent another consignment, somewhat refined, to New York. This was bought, and Grand Rapids was on the furniture map. In 1879, buyers started to come to Grand Rapids. From 1880 to 1884, the city experienced a phenomenal growth, due to its suddenly acquired importance as a furniture manufacturing center.

In 1881 the first manufacturers’ association was formed and by 1884 there were 61 woodworking firms in the city, twenty-one of which made furniture exclusively. Also, in the same year, Grand Rapids manufacturers exhibited at the World’s Fair in New Orleans.

Note: The New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 16, 1884, noted, “Mr. H.D.C. Van Asmus, secretary of the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers’ Association writes that his association at its last meeting, March 10, decided to make a joint exhibit of furniture and kindred manufactured articles, and that he is instructed to make application for a space of 600 feet in length by 15 or 20 feet in width.”

At present there are 68 furniture factories in Grand Rapids, which also is one of the leading market centers of the world. Nearly 500 outside makers of various products for the home show in the Michigan city four times a year. (Just recently Grand Rapids has made the midseason markets formal events.)

Grand Rapids’ Hundredth Market Celebration, in January, marks fifty years of growth, development and improvement of the entire furniture industry. Despite the fact that machinery has considerably supplanted the work of the hands, master craftsmen still add a touch to furniture made in Grand Rapids that gives it distinction and individuality. For several years it has called itself “The Furniture Capital of America,” taking pride in being the quality and style center of the industry.

When buyers come to the Grand Rapids market this winter they will be greeted by the most modern mean of transportation, luxurious, swift motor cars that will carry them wherever they want to go. The journeys around the city in the old days were somewhat less alluring, as seen in the photograph above.


In 1889 a small group of men met at the Palmer House and formed the Chicago Furniture Manufacturers’ Association. There was very little seasonable market interest there until 1894, however. In 1895, plans were made for the leasing of the J.M. Walker building, Adams and Market Streets, for the purpose of holding an exposition of Chicago furniture manufacturers’ products. The first furniture market was held in Chicago in 1895, and was a distinct success. It made money and exhibitors were refunded part of their space rent. A few years later, another exposition was held at Tattersall’s. From these humble beginnings, the South Michigan and Wabash Avenue exposition buildings developed, finally culminating in the beautiful American Furniture Mart at 666 Lake Shore Drive. Registrations at the Chicago Mart have enjoyed increases year by year. The American Furniture Mart is the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to furniture.


In the early days, the furniture manufacturers of Jamestown, New York, where the industry had been existent since 1816, found more than a local demand for their products, and so were forced to resort to flatboats to carry furniture to the national buying centers. Furniture buyers first began coming to Jamestown in about 1875. Their number was not large at first, of course, as transportation facilities were negligible. Retail stores and warehouses were used at first for market showrooms for manufacturers’ displays. A market association was formed in 1914 and an exposition structure, the Jamestown Furniture Manufacturers’ building, was erected ten years ago. This building has 200,000 square feet of floor space and affords manufacturers an appropriate place to show their wares. This market center draws the majority of its buyers from the eastern states, although it does attract merchants from as far west as the Mississippi.


For many years previous to the completion of the Southern Furniture Exposition building at High Point, North Carolina, many of the factories located in that district had private showrooms and several salesmen in the town who would meet the incoming buyers and conduct them through High Point factories.

S.H. Tomlinson organized, in 1907, a furniture showroom, expenses for which were shared by local manufactures. Only a few out-of-town concerns were represented, and it was not until 1913 that a regular market was attempted. This venture attracted about 150 buyers. Following the uncertain war period, Charles F. Long was asked to lend his talents to the building of the Southern Furniture Exposition building. Ground was broken in August 1919, and in June 1921, the first market was held in it. In 1922, the High Point manufacturers decided to hold four shows a year—January, May, July, and October, but the plan was abandoned in favor of the present semi-annual markets in January and July. A steady growth in attendance has been noted since the building was erected.

The New York Furniture Exchange Association, which was formed in the fall of 1918, now has 16 floors at Thirty-second Street and Lexington Avenue in the heart of a new business area.

Thirty years ago, Charles E. Spratt got several lines from eastern points and showed them in a Lexington Avenue building. During the World War period, the Government needed buildings for war purposes but these have since been restored to general use. The work that was done by these buildings during the old New York Furniture Market seasons has been centered now under one roof—that of the splendid New York Furniture Exchange.

At the rear of the new building is a roadway 200 feet long, running from Thirty-second to Thirty-third Street. This is used as a freight driveway. Unloading platforms and escalators carry crates down to the basement where they are unpacked. The New York Market has kept pace with the city, and is one of the three greatest furniture-manufacturing centers in the United States.

The development of furniture markets in the Far West is a more recent history. San Francisco has been the most active in conducting markets, and this city has been the exposition center of the Pacific Coast since the World War, although Los Angeles conducts semi-annual markets, as does Tacoma, Washington.

Furniture Record, January 1928, pages 42-45


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