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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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A Visit to Nelson, Matter & Co., 1878

by William A. LeRow

“My first call in Grand Rapids chanced to be upon Nelson, Matter & Co. Since my visit here, four years ago, great and beneficial changes had taken place. From the door of the Post Office [located in the Government Building, bounded by Division, Lyon, Pearl, and Ionia] I saw their sign on a colossal building on Lyon Street. I entered their place and was ushered into their commodious office. Mr. Ezra Nelson showed me through the entire establishment to which additions have recently been made. It is now one of the largest in the country, a model of comprehensive arrangements for furniture manufacturing and the display of finished work. The main factory 70x180 feet is four stories high: the other buildings including warerooms, are 70x160 and 51x 180 feet, all six stories in height. They aggregate some three and a half acres of floor room, exclusive of lumberyard, sheds, etc. Taken in its entirety, the establishment is a very imposing one, fronting on three streets, and occupying a large part of a block.

Previous to 1862, little was done in furniture manufacturing in Grand Rapids. At that time C.C. Comstock, the present owner of the great woodenware factory, was doing a small and mainly retail furniture business. In 1962 the brothers Nelson, of the present Nelson, Matter firm, bought into the business and began to manufacture. Soon after Comstock sold out entirely to them, and then began the growth of this company.


My tour through their different departments was most interesting. They have their own well appointed photograph* room on the top floor. In their designing room I met Mr. Charles H. Radcliff, the originator of this firm’s furniture that delights the eye of the connoisseur of fashionable furniture. To me the most interesting department was that of the marquetry makers. Here I learned for the first time of the delicacy and accuracy so essential in the difficult department of furniture manufacturing. A large force of skilled operative are kept busy in producing this ornamental work.

A goodly force of carvers was at work in their department, and some of their products equaled in cleverness of execution the famed work of the Black Forest in Germany.

The ebonizing department, where quaint designs in cherry wood are transformed into elegantly polished work, to simulate black ivory, was a place where I tarried long. Some of their choice patterns of ebony chamber suits, with the black ground relieved by delicate gold line and figures, have a most restful effect upon the eye. Their finishing rooms fairly teem with men, producing that glass-like surface for which their goods are noted.

The wood working department is very large and stocked with as fine machinery as money can purchase, or skill suggest. The salesroom occupies two floors of a building 70x160 foot, and their contents are worthy of thoughtful study. Here are exposed their lines of chamber, hall, dining room, and office furniture. The firm manufactures no parlor frames, but, for their large home trade, they upholster some rich suites and odd pieces.


A look into the packing room convinced me that business was certainly active. I learn that their general trade has increased considerably over that of last year, and Mr. Nelson considers that the outlook for their business, and that of the trade in general, is quite encouraging. The firm is growing quite a large export trade. In October last they shipped to London some of their finest chamber work in response to an order from one of the heaviest furniture houses there.

Nelson, Matter began in 1862 with perhaps 30 men, a large force in those days for an obscure western town, almost unknown as a furniture manufacturing point. They now employ upward of 400 men, and have depots in Boston and New York. They require the services of five experienced “furniture travellers” to disseminate their goods, and their trade encompasses the United States and Canada.”

Excerpted from, “Our Grand Rapids Letter, Nov. 20, 1878.” The American Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and Carpet Reporter, December 7, 1878, page 14

*Note: Elias Matter, one of the founders of the Nelson-Matter Company, Grand Rapids, is said to have been the first furniture manufacturer to equip his salesmen with photographic samples and thus save the expense of making the miniatures, but he did not really originate the idea. While in Jackson, Michigan he met a man who was taking orders for baby carriages using photographs as samples and on reaching home he immediately engaged a photographer and set him to work making pictures to be carried by the Nelson & Matter salesmen.

Weekly Artisan, July 31, 1909, page 17.

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