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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...


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First Furniture Factories

by GRHC

published: September 2nd, 2013

Following the Civil War there were still small businesses making and selling furniture in Grand Rapids. However, five furniture companies had progressed to factory status, and in 1873 four of them had incorporated. William LeRow, a reporter with American Cabinet Maker, Upholsterer and Carpet Reporter, a trade paper published in Boston, visited these factories in 1878. His long article, which appeared in the December 7th issue, is almost a promotional piece in its praise for each of these companies. Still, it is an early look, particularly by an outsider, of the local furniture trade. It is worth reading, as a comparative follow-up to LeRow,  Albert Baxter’s 1891 articles regarding the same companies. (They can be found at the right, with other additional information, in Related Items.)

“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 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 . . ." (continue reading)


"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." (continue reading)


"One morning I sharpened my Faber, left the inviting portals of the “Morton,” wended my way across the Grand River, and entered the great establishment of the Phoenix Furniture Co. Alighting from his buggy at the door just as I arrived, I recognized the stalwart form and kindly face of William A. Berkey, that large hearted gentleman . . ." (continue reading)

 


"The Grand Rapids Chair Co. is an important factor in the furniture product of this enterprising city. It is not enough to merely locate here to be successful. The name Grand Rapids does not impart success. One must have brains and money to manufacture profitably here. This company began operations a little before the Phoenix people and have been very successful in their business." (continue reading)


"A walk through the northwest part of Grand Rapids brought me to the works of the old and substantial Widdicomb Furniture Company. The Widdicomb brothers started in a very small way in 1864. The company now has a paid up capital of $150,000, and is one of the soundest concerns here. They make a specialty of low-priced ash and maple bedsteads, also some of cherry and walnut." (continue reading)


Bibliography

Books available at the GR History and Special Collections, Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Baxter, Albert. History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • Carron, Christian G. Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City. Grand Rapids, MI: Public Museum of Grand Rapids, 1998.
  • Mussey, Robert D., Jr, editor. The First American Furniture Finisher’s Manual: A Reprint of “The Cabinet-makers Guide” of 1827. Dover, 1987. 
  • Ransom, Frank Edward. The City Built on Wood: A History of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan 1850-1950. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1955.
  • Hundreds of books, artisan magazines, and trade catalogs related to furniture are located in this section of the library.

Books available for circulation at the GR Public Library

  • Carron, Christian G. Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City. Grand Rapids, MI: Public Museum of Grand Rapids, 1998.
  • Ransom, Frank Edward. The City Built on Wood: A History of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan 1850-1950. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1955.

A Keyword Search of the Grand Rapids Public Library's online catalog for Furniture History will return over 50 pages of items related to the topic. A narrower Keyword Search of Grand Rapids furniture history or Grand Rapids furniture limits the number of returns. 

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