Haldane, William "Deacon"
1836 - circa 1859
Grand Rapids, Michigan
1836: Haldane comes to Grand Rapids from Ohio to open one of the city’s first cabinet shops.
1848: Haldane installs the first power machinery in his Canal Street shop.
1854: Haldane forms a partnership with Enoch W. Winchester, which dissolves after one year.
Ca. 1859: Haldane closes his shop.
1936: Grand Rapids celebrates “Centennial of Furniture Making” one century after Haldane’s arrival, and enshrines Haldane as “The Father of the Furniture Industry”.
William Haldane was born in Dehli, New York in 1807, the son of poor Scottish immigrants. William’s first important job was reported to be carpentry for the construction of a church in Panesville, Ohio in 1831. Here he met and married Sarah Tomlinson, the niece of the minister. In 1836 they traveled by horse and wagon to Grand Rapids. Haldane’s first shop was in the back of their small frame residence. Built in 1837, it stood at the corner of Pearl and Ottawa Streets downtown, until it was torn down in 1888.
William “Deacon” Haldane was chosen to be venerated in 1936 as “Father of the Furniture Industry” by 20th-century promoters of the Grand Rapids Furniture Market. While he does seem to be one of the first white settlers to set up a furniture shop in Grand Rapids, he made few lasting contributions toward birthing an industry. Most frontier towns had a cabinetmaker, along with a blacksmith, tinsmith, wheelwright, and other assorted tradespeople. Their shops and homes were generally one and the same, and their markets were usually limited to the local village.
If the success of Grand Rapids’ furniture industry was built on large factories with many unskilled and semi-skilled workers producing furniture in assembly line fashion for wide distribution, then Haldane was the antithesis of a typical Grand Rapids furniture maker. Haldane was trained in a pre-industrial system of apprentices, journeymen, and master craftsmen. His shop employed only seven men, and presumably made most of his furniture for local buyers. Haldane reportedly led his workers in prayer and Bible reading every morning before they began their work, one of the activities that earned him the nickname “Deacon”.
Haldane’s product range is known to have included case pieces, beds, chairs, tables, and coffins. In his first year in Grand Rapids, he also made several sleighs or cutters to earn extra money. A hoop-back Windsor arm chair attributed to Haldane circa 1840 is in the collections of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Made from a combination of Michigan woods including oak, hickory, maple, and poplar, this chair appears to have been finished originally with a dark red-brown wash. Interestingly, though Haldane is known to have had a lathe in his shop, the spindles in this chair back were crudely fashioned with a spoke shave. The Public Museum’s collection of Haldane’s tools includes a number of wood planes and two spoke shaves.
In 1855 Haldane was awarded two prizes at the annual fair of the Kent County Agricultural Society for a bedstead and a bureau. The Public Museum also owns a circa 1880 walnut sewing table attributed to Haldane, and donated by a distant relative. While it is conceivable that he made it as a present for a relative, the sewing table dates stylistically from a time considerably later than when Haldane is known to have quit the furniture business.
Haldane is chronicled in most histories of early Grand Rapids, although many incorporate some amount of myth building about his furniture career. In 1936 his niece recorded her recollections for a newspaper feature on Haldane for the Century of Furniture Celebration. A copy of these reminiscences is in the collections of the Grand Rapids Public Library.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum owns two pieces of furniture attributed to Haldane, and a collection of his tools.
Marks and Labels
No piece currently attributed to Haldane is signed or marked, making attribution of other pieces without clear provenance difficult.
The source, with permission of the author, is Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, published by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 1998.
|Title||Haldane, William "Deacon"|
|Address||Grand Rapids, MI|
|Year Closed||circa 1859|