Furniture Detective: Not all antique Grand Rapids furniture is grand

Common wisdom in the furniture trade says that anything made in Grand Rapids is “good stuff.” Is that true? Perhaps. But like so many other things, there is always a “but.” In this case the but is  “Made when and by whom in Grand Rapids?” There was a time when the term “Grand Rapids” associated with any piece of furniture implied the top of the line merchandise, where quality was assured. Is that always the case?

Furniture Detective Fred Taylor

In 1913, the publication “The Grand Rapids Furniture Record,” the trade publication for the Furniture Manufacturers Association (FMA) in Grand Rapids, Mich., ran a feature article exposing the fraud of a Spokane, Wash., retail furniture company. The fraud? Calling itself the “Grand Rapids Cash Furniture Company,” implying that its furniture was actually made in Grand Rapids. In 1919, the FMA successfully sued a number of retail outlets in the Cleveland area for using the name “Grand Rapids” even though they didn’t sell Grand Rapids-made items.

What was so important about safeguarding the use of the name of a geographic location? Because from the time of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 to the beginning of the American Depression in the 1929, the Grand Rapids furniture community considered itself to be the center of the furniture universe. And in many respects it was.

How an obscure fur trading post of the early 19th century, located in the wilds of southwestern Michigan, became one of the premier furniture manufacturing centers of all time is an interesting story of hard work, determination and luck.

The first cabinet shop in Grand Rapids was opened in 1836 by an Ohio woodworker, supplying local needs for chairs and beds, working for cash or barter. But the woodworker, a man named Haldane, was not the precursor of the industry that evolved. Haldane made furniture the old fashioned way – one piece at a time, completely by hand. But big change was on the way. By that time Lambert Hitchcock had been running his machine-driven assembly line chair factory in Connecticut for nearly 20 years and the process was widely understood and accepted in the industry.

Grand Rapids furniture label

This brass tag identified a piece of furniture as having been made by a member of the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild.

The first business to produce the furniture that Grand Rapids would become famous for – factory produced using power machinery and marketed in distant locales – was a factory started in 1849 by Ebenezer Ball. Ball shipped lumber and chairs down the Erie Canal into upstate New York. By 1850, he had a contract to furnish 10,000 Windsor chairs to single buyer in Chicago! That’s a long way from Haldane’s one-of-a-kind chairs from only a few years earlier. In 1857, the first member of a soon-to-be-famous furniture family moved to Grand Rapids. Unlike many cabinetmakers of this transitional period in American furniture history, he was quite amenable to the power machine factory idea. His name was Widdicomb, and the John Widdicomb Co. still survives in Grand Rapids.

In addition to enterprising factory owners and ingenious machine makers like Charles Buss who made power planers for the factories, Grand Rapids was blessed with a rare combination of natural assets. It was surrounded by millions of acres of both softwood and hardwood forests and the nearby Grand River provided the route for transporting it all.

Timber was felled in the forests and floated down river to the sawmills that turned out lumber for houses, wagons and furniture. Extra finished lumber was floated further down stream for sale.

Attracted by the combination of resources, a pair of brothers arrived in Grand Rapids to establish themselves. Julius and William Berkey were responsible for a number of important furniture companies that bore their name. The first was the William A. Berkey Co., which was later purchased by Widdicomb. Then Julius had a number of partnerships, including Berkey & Hamm and Berkey & Matter (another famous name), before joining his brother in a new venture simply called Berkey Bros. & Co. When George Gay joined the firm, it became Berkey Bros. & Gay and later was incorporated as just the famous Berkey & Gay, which dominated the Philadelphia Exposition with its Renaissance Revival “battleship”-size hotel bedroom furniture. By the 1870s, the three leading companies in Grand Rapids were Berkey & Gay, Nelson, Matter and Phoenix.

Berkey & Gay and Nelson, Matter gradually eliminated the lower levels of their furniture and concentrated on the high end of factory made furniture. Phoenix maintained a low cost line for many years.

Around the turn of the century other famous names began to show up in Grand Rapids. Among them were Stickley Brothers, started in 1891 by Albert and John George Stickley, two of Gustav’s younger brothers. Arts & Crafts powerhouse Charles Limbert established his company in 1894. Stuart Foote started Imperial Furniture Co. in 1903 and Robert W. Irwin acquired Royal Furniture, then Phoenix, and merged them into the Robert W. Irwin Co.

Around this time the term “Grand Rapids” became solidly associated with high quality furniture and that’s when the FMA began to feel the need to protect itself and the reputation of the city against impostors trying to take advantage of the name. The first effort to positively identify Grand Rapids furniture as the genuine article began in 1899 when the FMA developed the red triangular trademark known as the “Grand Rapids Made” logo. This mark appeared on every piece of furniture made by FMA members from 1899 to 1913. This was followed in 1931 by the formation of the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild. The Guild cooperatively marketed members’ products to a selected number of retailers, assuring them a constant supply of guaranteed Grand Rapids Furniture. To each piece of Guild furniture was affixed a brass tag certifying it as a product of “True Grand Rapids Cabinet Making” and each piece was individually registered with the Guild.
After World War II, Grand Rapids declined in importance as the major furniture center of America but it continues today to produce a smaller quantity of high-end goods.

So is Grand Rapids origin a guarantee of high quality? Probably. But like I said, you still need to know when it was made and by whom in Grand Rapids to know for sure.

For detailed information on the history of Grand Rapids and the companies that made it great, see “Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City” by Christian Carron, published by the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s website: His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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