Furniture Detective: Surviving the Depression with novelty furniture

Have you ever picked up a book about American 20th century furniture and marveled at the number of seemingly “non-furniture” items included in the pages? If you look around homes and estates originally furnished in the 1920s and 1930s, you might see many of the same novelty furniture items stashed away in nooks and crannies. The same holds true for old movies. The next time you see a flick from the 1930s, look at the backdrop. While it may include the stylish streamline Art Deco of the period, more than likely it is filled with small, non-essential items like wall racks and magazine stands, smoking stands and sewing tables. Where did all of that stuff come from?

This hanging wall shelf was made by Butler Specialty Co. of Chicago in the 1930s. The same shelf can be seen in a display of Butler products on page 308 of “Chicago Furniture - Art, Craft & Industry 1833-1983” by Sharon Darling.

This hanging wall shelf was made by Butler Specialty Co. of Chicago in the 1930s. The same shelf can be seen in a display of Butler products on page 308 of “Chicago Furniture – Art, Craft & Industry 1833-1983” by Sharon Darling.

It was the result of one of the most trying periods of American history: the Great Depression, which began with the October stock market crash in 1929 and lasted until after World War II. The Black Tuesday Crash of October 1929 was just the beginning. After that the country was plunged into a deep depression that brought poverty to many middle class working families and threatened the existence of much of American industry, including the furniture manufacturing and retailing industries.

It became harder and harder, then virtually impossible, to sell a new dining room suite or a new living room ensemble to a newly impoverished family that could barely pay the rent and buy food. But there is always that small ember of burning desire to make small additions and improvements to the nest, so the furniture industry came up with a new product line: “novelty” furniture. Companies that could no longer sell the entire houseful of furniture, but found they could help the housewife spruce up the dining room – not with a new suite but with a new novelty called the “teacart” or “tea trolley.” True, the form had been around since the early 1920s, but it became popular after the crash. Not that American households served traditional hot tea in the English manner, but the name gave the wheeled buggy a nice little touch of much needed class. And if a little class was good, many choices in the class were better. Major players like Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids, Mich., entered the novelty market, offering as many as 18 different finishes and decorative schemes for its line of “hostess wagons.” They came with tray tops, extra shelves, folding handles and a variety of wheel arrangements, as well as a number of names.

This article originally appeared in Antique Trader magazine

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The major center of the novelty industry was found in Chicago where a wide variety of manufacturers resided. One of the more innovative of the novelty makers was the United Table-Bed Co. They made their famous “Ta-Bed,” a bed that folded up to look like a small breakfast room table. It was marketed as a multiple-use product that “saves space, saves rent, perfectly combines in one piece of furniture the functions ordinarily performed by two.” The Storkline Corp. turned out a line of inexpensive baby cribs and juvenile furniture while even the powerhouses of Chicago joined in the niche market. Tonk Manufacturing, finding the need for piano stools waning, turned to high chairs and music cabinets. Parlor frame maker Zangerle & Peterson turned to small tables and commodes, and Kruissink & Brothers turned from oak bookcases to wall shelves.

The great survivor of the novelty makers was Butler Specialty Co., formed in 1927. Butler specialized in magazine racks and wall shelves to survive the Depression, turning later to full-size, high-end furniture. Butler is still in business today offering a medium-to-high quality line of furniture.

Another product of the novelty phase was perhaps the best known sewing stand of the 20th century. No, not the Martha Washington. It was the priscilla, the small stand with the peaked top that opened on both sides below the handle. This little stand first appeared early in the century and gained prominence during the dark days.

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But the prize of all the novelties was the smoking stand. This multi-purpose stand came into use just after World War I and was popular until after World War II, even though it slipped a little in the 1930s. The stand focused initially on the pipe smoker, providing an enclosed humidor space, complete with moisture pad, in the interior. Many of the “humidors” appeared to be made of copper or brass but were in reality just sheet metal that had been painted or coated. Brass and copper were much too expensive for smoking stands. The smoker or smoking stand became the object of decorative fancy, utilizing the most outrageous woods possible. Zebra striped “zebrano” veneer was a common material, as was Oriental walnut, the striped Australian wood. Applied decals and exotic paint schemes decorated many of the affordable stands.

One well known novelty maker outside of Chicago was the H. T. Cushman Co. of Bennington, Vt. Founded in 1864 making corks, Cushman diversified into “novelties” that led to such items as the pencil with an eraser on it, the first ink eraser and some of the earliest roller skates.

Cushman introduced its first smoking stand in 1913, leading to factory additions in 1919, 1922 and 1926. In the early 1930s, Cushman expanded the line to include articles that fell in with the Colonial Revival movement of the day and became a major manufacturer of “Colonial” furniture. Over the years it updated its lines and eventually was acquired by General Interiors Corp. The factory facility was used by Green Mountain Furniture to construct inventory for Ethan Allen from 1972 to 1978.

Many modern furniture manufacturers today owe their existence to the survival mode adopted during the Depression, and a large part of that mode was the design, construction and sale of “novelty” furniture to the American public.

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