By Fred Taylor
Chicago is frequently referred to as America’s “second city,” although most Chicago residents probably don’t feel that way. But where the subject of older furniture is concerned, Chicago is often overlooked. New England is viewed as the bastion of so-called “real” antiques with Boston, Philadelphia, Newport and the like getting most of the glory for their 18th century treasures. By the turn of the 19th century, however, New York was beginning to stake a major claim on the quality furniture trade with Phyfe and Lannuier and later with names like Belter, Meeks and Herter. In the second half of the century, attention turned to areas that could produce furniture in the quantities demanded by the growing country and that seemed to be Grand Rapids, home of prize winning Berkey & Gay among many others, and Cincinnati, home to Mitchell and Rammelsberg and George Henshaw.
But all the while, a nascent furniture industry was taking hold in Chicago, quietly accumulating the immigrant craftsmen and forming the manufacturing foundation that would bring Chicago to long-term prominence in the industry. By late in the century, Chicago was a major player in the furniture trade and some of the most famous names in the industry worked there. By 1885, Chicago had 200 furniture factories and employed more people in the trade than any other city in the nation. After the turn of the century and into the Great Depression, Chicago was responsible for much of the furniture found in American households, leading the way not only in production but in innovative design.
Take a look at some of the famous furniture from Chicago that you may have heard of.
Max Tonk, born in Berlin in 1851, went with his family to Chicago in 1857. He learned to carve and worked in his uncle’s piano and organ factory, carving embellishments of the instruments. In 1873 he opened his own carving shop, supplying the Chicago cabinet industry with fancy ornaments for cabinets and caskets. In the 1880s, Tonk Manufacturing began to make swivel-seat piano stools for the growing musical industry. Tonk became the largest maker of piano stools in the country, making the majority of swivel-seat stools on the market, including the ubiquitous round oak stool with claw feet. Tonk Manufacturing was eventually headed by three generations of Tonks.
Frank Tobey (1833-1913) was one of those most responsible for promoting and distributing the new designs of the Arts & Crafts Movement. He opened his first shop in 1856 and by the end of the century he was one of Chicago’s premier furniture makers and retailers. In 1900, the company offered some of the first “Mission” furniture designed by
in-house employee George Clingman.
In October of that year, Tobey Hand Made Furniture presented a line called “New Furniture” designed and built by the then relatively unknown Gustave Stickley. (Stickley dropped the “e” in his given name in 1904, becoming known as “Gustav.”) The furniture was immediately popular with consumers and by the end of the year Stickley had terminated the arrangement with Tobey and started his own Craftsman furniture line.
Three of the largest makers of upholstered goods in the first half of the 20th century also were in Chicago: S. Karpen and Bros., Pullman, and Kroehler Manufacturing.
Solomon Karpen and his brother, Oscar, opened S. Karpen and Bros. in 1880 in a basement not far from home, making upholstered furniture. By 1894, all nine Karpen brothers worked for the firm. After the turn of the century, Karpen made Mission chairs and sofas along with parlor suites and folding beds, becoming one of the largest makers of upholstered furniture in America. In the 1920s the company, in addition to uph
olstered goods, made solid wood furniture in a variety of styles and offered church and lodge furniture as well. The company survived until 1952, when it was sold to Schnadig Corporation, which still uses the Karpen name on one of its lines of upholstered goods.
Peter Kroehler developed a folding bed in 1909 and began to acquire companies with similar designs. He opened Kroehler Manufacturing in 1915. Kroehler made contract goods for both Montgomery Ward and Sears and often shipped directly from the factory to the customer. Kroehler was liquidated in 1981.
Pullman Couch Company was formed in 1906 in Chicago by Jacob Schnadig and Julius Kramer. The name of the company was taken from the building in which the two men had lunch while discussing the plans for the new company. The building was the Pullman Building on Michigan Avenue. The company made Victorian reproduction furniture, as well as overstuffed parlor sets until it received a patent for an innerspring mattress to accommodate a pull-out sleeper sofa. After that, they made mostly the sleepers. In 1954, the company became the Schnadig Company, run by the son of Pullman founder Jacob Schnadig. That company is still in business under that name.
And every American male over the age of 35 who has had a haircut and a shave in a commercial barbershop probably owed part of his comfort during the procedure to a man from Chicago: Theodore Kochs.
Kochs was a maker of barber supplies in 1867 when he adapted the newly developed reclining chair of the period to the needs of the barber industry. His chair had a tilting back, an adjustable headrest and a back that pivoted on an angle base. The chair came with a separate footrest. But rather than make the chair himself, Kochs provided the frames to upholsterers and dealers who added their own fabrics. His frame was the standard for barber chairs until nearly the turn of the 20th century, when the chair on a column became the industry standard.
But Kochs saw the original need and found a way to fill it.
More information about Chicago furniture can be found in “Chicago Furniture – Art, Craft & Industry, 1833-1983” by Sharon Darling (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984, hardcover, 428 pages).