History of Colby furniture company helps decipher date of desk

Q: I’m wondering if you have any information about a company named Colby’s. I recently purchased a kidney-shaped desk with beautiful and complicated veneers, inlays and marquetry. On the underside of the desk is a small brass tag bearing the name Colby’s and a five- digit number. I believe the desk was made in the late 1920s. I live in Chicago and there used to be a furniture store by the name of Colby’s, but I don’t know if it dated back that far or if they made furniture. I suppose another option is that Colby’s did not make, but sold the piece and put its label on it. What do you know about Colby’s?

Thanks for any help you can provide.

— Name withheld

A: Colby’s was the last name used by a company founded in 1869 by John Colby and Jacob Wirts. The name was changed to John A. Colby & Co. in 1879 and to John A. Colby & Sons in 1885. The change to Colby’s occurred in the mid-1940s.

That means your desk was made after that since not much fancy furniture was made during the War. Colby’s was mostly a furniture retailer, having closed its factory in the 1920s. It is very possible that Colby’s had a well known manufacturer make these items for them and affix their own label. One major manufacturer of kidney shaped items in the 1920s and early 1930s was Widdicomb Furniture Co. of Grand Rapids who made a large variety of European Revival models such as Italian and Venetian. Yours could very well be one of those models with its elegant inlay work.

The kidney shape in furniture first began showing up in 18th century furniture of France and England. English kidney desks were popular into the early 19th century and then seemed to fade away for awhile. The shape is difficult to work with and fell out of favor with handcraftsmen. The great mechanized furniture making binge of the early 1900s revived the form, especially in America, and some examples are still being made today.

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