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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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A Visit to Berkey & Gay Furniture Co., 1878

by William A. LeRow

“At the northern end of Canal Street, looming up as the most prominent landmark of that portion of the city stands the immense factories and warerooms of the Berkey & Gay Furniture Co., one of the largest concerns in this line. In the beginning there was Berkey & Hamm, which started in a humble manner in 1861, and it is said that the available capital was barely three hundred dollars. Then came Berkey & Matter in 1862, Berkey Brothers in 1863, and finally Berkey & Gay in 1866. But those were days when men could begin small and grow large far easier than now.

Their first years in business were not marked by rapid strides, as Grand Rapids furniture was not at that time either so famous or so desirable. The present company probably does the largest business of any concern here, and employs nearly 450 men. It is safe to say that today this company is as well known among the trade as any similar concern in the United States, and its reputation for goods is second to none.

The officers of this company whose names form the corporate signature, are not only men of thorough practical knowledge of this business, but are favorably known for their enterprise and tact. They have been successful in building up a business of vast proportions, and their enormous establishment is fitted with every valuable mechanical aid for the production of their goods.

Their main factory adjoins their great warerooms on Canal Street. Across the way, on the banks of the Canal, is their old factory filled with expensive machinery and crowded with skilled artisans. I was shown about by Mr. R.W. Corson, the polite furniture expert, who represents the company in the east and abroad. I must say I have rarely seen so fine a line of work as is exhibited in the warerooms of this company and in their designing room, ready to be brought out for the spring trade.

They make a specialty of bevel plate mirrors in their finer work, and the effect produced is elegant in the extreme. The warerooms, and particularly the stock rooms, were only scantily filled with goods owing to the great demand for them, though the company seldom makes less than one hundred of every article at a time. Not only are their fine grades of work unique in design and elegant in finish, but the commoner work as well. I saw low priced ash suites, and was told that a great number of them had been sent to Washington to be placed in the leading hotel there, also to some of the great hotels at Coney Island and Manhattan Beach. These popular goods are in demand and are well adapted to the modest homes of the average man in these depressed times. Red cedar sides and ends to their drawers are liberally used by the company to insure freedom from moths as well as providing a pleasant aroma. They do not manufacture parlor frames, but upholster some for their retail trade.

My tour through the company was a memorable one. I could not but wonder at the position the Grand Rapids work had taken in the furniture world. This company has merited their great success. The manufacturers and jobbers of the country owe them a debt of gratitude, and some of them a debt of cash because of the long, but successful, fight they made against the municipal law of San Francisco, taxing traveling salesmen exorbitantly. Mr. J.H. Beasley, one of the travelers, was the party who fought it through. Several other interested concerns promised to “ante up” their share of the legal expense, but they nearly all failed to do so at the termination of the suit in favor of Mr. Beasley.

The company has already sent some shipments of their work to other countries and Mr. Corson is intending to look up the foreign trade in person shortly. The warerooms of the company in New York are at No. 17 Elizabeth Street, where a heavy stock of all their lines is kept under the charge of the representative Mr. J.E. Foster."

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

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