Any antiques shop that has more than three pieces of Colonial Revival furniture is almost certain to have a Mersman table somewhere in the joint. Why? Because Mersman made millions of them. During the 100-plus-year life of the company, it churned out more than 30 million tables. In the 1920s, the company bragged that one out of 10 tables in American homes was a Mersman. It probably was more than that. Not bad coming from a company that started out as a sawmill.
J.B. Mersman was a 19th century sawyer with mills in Angola and Kendallville in extreme northeastern Indiana. He relocated his operations across the state line to Ottoville, Ohio, where he started making tables around 1876 under the name Mersman Tables when the lumber business turned soft. From there, he went on to make beds and bed parts. So successful was he that the nearby city of Celina, Ohio, solicited him to build a factory there and provided $7,500 of seed money for the operation. That turned out to be a good investment by the city fathers. Mersman was up and running in Celina by 1900, making beds, library tables and dining tables.
But all fussy details that were involved in successfully producing large volumes of furniture were not to the liking of the old sawmill operator. J.B. Mersman turned the business over to his two oldest sons, Edward and Walter, and their partner, banker Henry Lenartz, then headed for Arkansas to start up another sawmill operation. The furniture company continued operations under the new name, Lenartz and Mersman Brothers, until 1906, when Edmund Brandts bought out Lenartz. The company became known as Mersman Brothers and Brandts Company, and later that year, it was incorporated under the slightly altered name of Mersman Brothers Brandts Company. At that point, the company employed more than 100 workers who produced medium-quality dining tables for shipment throughout the country.
In the 1920s, the company produced an extraordinary line of dining and occasional tables. One of its strongest sellers was the “davenport” table, the company name for what is now known as a sofa table. In 1928 alone, the company offered 139 varieties of davenport tables ranging in price from $12 to $80, a princely sum in 1928.
While still based in Celina, Ohio, the company now known as The Mersman Bros. Corporation — it changed names again in 1927 — had warehouses scattered across the country in major metropolitan areas, including New York, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
Mersman’s product offerings in the 1920s and 1930s included a number of lines of dining tables and bedroom furnishings, but the concentration was clearly on occasional and special-purpose tables. A sample product listing in 1929 included library tables, davenport tables, davenport extension tables, console tables with or without mirrors, gateleg tables, coffee tables (among the very first) and radio table cabinets. The manufacture of radio cabinets became an important part of the business, tracking the ever-growing popularity of the new medium.
The construction techniques and materials used by Mersman during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s were typical of the period, especially in its “popular” (low end) and medium-grade tables.
The solid stock used for legs was primarily gum, the most frequently used wood in furniture production in America in 1928. Gum was readily available, reasonably priced and easily disguised as almost any other wood. Ordinarily subject to extreme warping and twisting during curing, gum had gained prominence only after new kiln drying techniques were developed early in the century.
The elaborately inlaid or veneered tops were all made of lumber core plywood, the furniture construction standard of the day. It consisted of five layers of wood, cross-banded to prevent warping. The most common woods for veneers and trim used by Mersman in the ’20s and ’30s were, in the company’s words, “brown mahogany, plain burl, rotary cut and butt-jointed walnut, rosewood, blistered maple, birds-eye maple, zebra veneers, ebony, redwood burls, satinwood and Russian oak.”
To its everlasting credit, Mersman not only produced the furniture, it also worked with retailers to develop a marketing and advertising plan for specific markets. Mersman provided, free of charge, camera-ready art for newspaper advertisements. It also developed what it called “The Mersman Idea Book,” a loose-leaf compendium of marketing ideas and strategies, as well as helpful hints on accounting practices and inventory control. The book was updated with regular additions and was offered free of charge to any retail furniture establishment that sold Mersman products. It included not only ideas from the company but also examples of techniques that had worked for other merchants in different areas of the country.
During World War II, Mersman, like most of the rest of the country, was involved in wartime production. It made benches, tables and desks for the military, and plywood for the Lend/Lease program. After the war, it concentrated even more directly on living room tables, letting the rest of the line fade.
In 1963, Congoleum acquired Mersman Brothers, then sold it to a private investment group in 1977, which operated the company under the name initially used by J.B. Mersman: Mersman Tables. In its heyday, Mersman had 700,000 square feet of manufacturing space and employed more than 750 people in Celina and in Eupora, Miss. The company ceased production in 1995.
Examples of Mersman products can be found almost anywhere. In spite of their excellent construction and sometimes innovative styling, Mersman tables today have little collector value due to their overwhelming availability.
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