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The Growth of Manufacturing
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Furniture Cities

Furniture Exhibit During the last half of the 19th century, furniture manufacturing became an important industry in Michigan, especially on the west side of the state. Grand Rapids earned its reputation as "The Furniture City" making huge quantities of mass-produced furniture. The production of furniture evolved into two separate industries: residential furniture production and the manufacture business and institutional furniture. This exhibit tells Michigan's furniture story.

Furniture for Home, Business and School

Victorians filled their homes with tables, chairs, knick-knack shelves, bookcases and a host of other furnishings. The front hall of the home served as a place for social rituals of the era: Visitors were received and calling cards left in special trays; coat racks and hall trees held coats and umbrellas; stands with mirrors created an illusion of wider or longer spaces.

Grand Rapids Chair Company advertisement Some rooms needed matching furniture. The Grand Rapids Chair Company, formed in 1872 by Charles C. Comstock and others, pioneered the creation of whole suites for bedrooms and dining rooms in the 1880s. A lumberman from New Hampshire, Comstock came to Grand Rapids in 1852 to work in Michigan's lumbering industry. By 1862, he started the city's first wholesale furniture manufacturing company.

A new emphasis on the office as a space in the workplace led to increased manufacturing of desks, chairs, filing cabinets and card files for use in businesses, stores, factories and public buildings. One famous Michigan furniture product was found at schools around the country: the cast iron and wood school desks produced by Grand Rapids School Furniture Company, formed in 1886 and later named American Seating Company. 

Grand Rapids Leads the Nation

Map of Michigan with location of Grand Rapids indicated Advertisement for Detroit Chair Company Three furniture manufacturers, Berkey and Gay, Nelson, Matter Furniture Company and the Phoenix Company, displayed exceptionally fine pieces of their furniture at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The resulting national publicity brought numerous new marketing opportunities, increased sales, and led to the identification of Grand Rapids as "The Furniture City."

While Grand Rapids was the best-known city in the nation for the manufacture of furniture, other Michigan cities including Detroit, Grand Ledge, Monroe and Holland also built large quantities of furniture. By 1890, Michigan employed some 7,000 people in 178 furniture factories across the state.

Building Furniture

Furniture manufacturers faced many problems. One that was especially difficult was the need to use dry wood—wood from which the sap had evaporated—so that the piece of furniture would hold together. The wood had to season for three or four years before it had dried sufficiently to use for furniture. Michiganians A. D. Linn and Z. Clark Thwing designed a dry kiln to reduce the drying time and make more wood available in less time for furniture production.

Machine production of furniture reduced costs by cutting down on the amount of hand labor necessary to build a piece of furniture. Specialized machines were developed to carve multiple copies of a single part. The King Spindle Carving Machine, for example, could create four identical panel pieces at one time. Planers, saws, joiners and dovetailing machines made up just a portion of the furniture manufacturer's required equipment.

Machines could not do all the work, however. Carving, painting and inlay work remained the task of skilled workmen. Despite the emphasis on mass production with machines, hand-made furniture continued to be favored by many buyers and still expensive. A unskilled laborer in the great furniture factories of Grand Rapids in the 1880s and 1890s or later might have earned as little as $1.50 a day; an extremely skilled craftsman may have earned up to $7.00 a day. Both worked about 60 to 70 hours per week.

Visit The Furniture City exhibit at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, MI.

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