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A Trip Through Time: Grand Rapids Furniture History

Grand Rapids, Michigan is one of the most well known places for furniture manufacturing in the United States, and is even referred to as “Furniture City.” The furniture city is known for manufacturing fine furniture and shipping it worldwide. Here at McClure Tables, we are honored to be a part of this city’s fine history, or which woodworking and furniture manufacturing takes up a significant portion. Here’s a brief history of the furniture business in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Origin

Berkey & Gay Co. Showroom, 1880 (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

Berkey & Gay Co. Showroom, 1880 (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

All the way back in 1836, a man named William Haldene traveled from Ohio to Grand Rapids and opened one of the first furniture shops in the city, specializing in cabinets, but he also made chairs, beds, coffins, and tables. The picture below is of a 1840 hoop back armchair accredited to Haldene. The chair currently resides in the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Haldene was honored in 1936 as “Father of the Furniture Industry” by the Grand Rapids Furniture Market, and to this day remains the instigator of Grand Rapids’ furniture industry. In 1876, the first company to send a collection of their furniture eastward was the Berkey & Gay Co. The first shipment they sent was rejected, but Eastern merchants in New York bought the second shipment. This helped establish Grand Rapids’ as a nationwide furniture provider.

1840s hoop back armchair accredited to William Haldene (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

1840s hoop back armchair accredited to William Haldene (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

Trademarking “Grand Rapids”

In 1902, furniture companies in Grand Rapids began using the name Grand Rapids itself as a trademark, to establish that their furniture was the from the Furniture City, rather than somewhere else. From the newspaper The Evening Press in 1902, this was said of the trademark, “[it] is primarily a protection against inferior furniture which may bear some resemblance to a high grade article… In a word, it protects the legitimate dealer against other furniture that is sold under the reputation made by the members of the Grand Rapids Furniture Association.” Okay, not really a quote, reword and put in the article.  Furniture bearing this trade mark is in a class by itself.”

“The Grand Rapids Furniture Record” trade publication for the Grand Rapids Furniture Association exposed a furniture company in Spokane, Washington for calling it self the “Grand Rapids Cash Furniture Company.” This fraud gave the impression that its furniture was actually made in Grand Rapids.  The Grand Rapids Furniture Association sued several companies in Cleveland for the same trademark fraud, intent on keeping their name in Grand Rapids.

Top Left, The Grand Rapids Furniture Trademark (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

Top Left, The Grand Rapids Furniture Trademark (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

Notable Names

Ebenezer M. Ball provides us with a close-up look at the furniture industry in Grand Rapids in the 1800s. He teamed up with William Powers and had a very successful company at the time. In one of his letters home he writes, “I expect to be very much drove with business this summer and almost dread the accumulation of labor and care that the steam mill will bing, but I work all the time now and can do no more if we have 40 mills.”

FirstWomanDesigner

Margaret E. Page (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

Margaret E. Page was one of the first female furniture designer in Grand Rapids. Page was trained by many notable designers of the time, like Otto Jiranek and John D. Raab. She opened an office in 1912 and created her own successful business.

Striking Trouble

Things weren’t always easy in The Furniture City. In 1911, employees from many of the furniture, sawmill, and woodworking machinery companies in Grand Rapids walked off the job, striking for better wages and hours. The strike lasted four months, leaving the city at a standstill. After much turmoil, the strikers received what they wanted. This strike not only got better wages and hours for workers, but also forced Grand Rapids to reevaluate its government, resulting in a new formation of the city government.

Legacy

Grand Rapids has always been known for it’s fine furniture, and in 1876 Grand Rapids was recognized for being the leading furniture manufacturer in the world, and to this day it is still the leading manufacturer of office furniture worldwide. The Grand Rapids Furniture Association created in 1881 was made for purpose of protecting furniture manufacturers and dealers. It insured reasonable rates of transfer in order to protect members. By 1884, there were already 61 wood working firms in Grand Rapids, and 21 of them made furniture exclusively. By 1928 there were 68 furniture manufacturers in Grand Rapids, and the city often refers to itself as “The Furniture Capital of the World.” Some original buildings like the Keebler Building, pictured below, still stand today.

The Keeler Building (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

The Keeler Building (Source: http://www.furniturecityhistory.org/)

McClure Tables has operated out of Grand Rapids for the last eight years, and we pride ourselves as a family company, hand-making all of our shuffleboard tables and butcher block products. We are honored to be a part of the traditional and modern woodworking and furniture manufacturing that exemplifies the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We love handcrafting shuffleboard tables, butcher block kitchen islands and gathering blocks, butcher block cutting boards, butcher block chopping blocks, and butcher block countertops. We ship worldwide, but our heart and wood rests in the Furniture City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you’re interested in any of our shuffleboards check out our buyer’s guide, or simply browse our selection.

34 thoughts on “A Trip Through Time: Grand Rapids Furniture History

  1. Gorman's Furniture says:

    It is so cool to see how far furniture and Grand Rapids in general have come. Thank you for highlighting the history of the city. This is a great resource!

  2. Bud Mann says:

    Where can I find information on sawmills around Grand Rapids in the 1800’s?

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Bud I would recommend the Grand Rapids Museum

  3. Blake says:

    Looking for information on Central Michigan Office Chair Co. My great grand father worked there in the 1940s. I can’t find anything on it.

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Did you check with the Grand Rapids Museum they have a great Furniture section I would look their

    2. Jen says:

      The Grand Rapids Public Library would be a good place to check. The top floor is dedicated to everything in Grand Rapids history. Lots of books, microfiche, and expert librarians to help you out.

  4. susan aube says:

    I have a huge butcher block with the name Boot & co. 115 fulton st. grand rapids. is stamped on ot. Just trying to figure out who made it and a age. Thank you for any information.

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Susan, We are in Grand Rapids in Jenison I would love to come by and take some pictures of it, are you sure it does not say boos not boot? John Boos is a very large company today in Indiana but at one time was a small shop like our is. One of the things we try to do is use the modern technology of the internet today to connect on a personal level with customers but we actually build things just like they did back in that day. Michigan Butcher Block is also a local company has been around for a long time. It could even they made and stamped with a local company on it. However would not surprise me with all the local furniture manufactures located in Grand Rapids at the time made the one you have. I googled Boot & Co came up with this google book I love the old Google Docs we find a lot of cool information about shuffleboard tables their but you might want to research here

  5. Debra Pardee says:

    We have finally discovered the maker of a king and queen cane back carved chairs while taking them apart to refinish and reupholstered them. The round blue and white seal under the queen chair says Michigan Chair Company, Grand Rapids, Mich. there is a red triangle stamped GRM and writing I can’t see yet. Penciled in is No. Zero w a / thru it 623, then under the blue line , penciled in is 65-1 and under that a script B or 13? How can I authenticate them. I don’t want to refinish and destroy the value if they belong in a museum for American Furniture. If they are not worth much we need to refinish, reupholster and get them in the house.
    My Uncle bought the chairs at a store in Boston in the late 1950’s (I have a picture of them somewhere) he gave them to my father when he purchased a home on Shippan Point, Stamford, Ct . The home was previously owned by relatives of President Johnson, I have pictures of them in that foyer. My mother had instructed the professional upholsterer to replace the seating material and supplied him with the fabric. The backs are weaved cane, the seats, cotton and or sheeps wool, something that looks like coarse hair fibers, springs tied w twine and weaved burlap. They are in rough shape but easily restorable. Any info would be greatly appreciated because they are large and take up allot of space. They need to be used or go somewhere, they are a waste to store.

  6. lyn neale says:

    I have a small sewing notions or table of mahogany. The legs are tapered straight and are 19.5″ long. There is a lidded box on one end 4″x3″ and on the opposite end an open box of the same dimensions. There is an 8x10zx5/8″ slide in board (perhaps for writing) on the front and the handle to pull it out is small , rotates and is brass . The handle to carry this table is cut in decorative oval shape and is the tallest part of the piece. and is functional as a support between the two boxes and is centered on the top. Dimensions are H-28″, W-21-1/2″, and D-12″. On the bottom is a label stating “Fine Arts Furniture Co., Grand Rapids, MI, and the stamped identifying marks of S.M. 732 and also punched number 85. All fasteners are slotted and the unit is assembled by fasteners and probably glue. (The wood appears to be mahogany (possibly Luan) and also a mahogany stain). Do you know what this piece might be? I use it as a night stand/bookcase, but am interested in knowing more about it. Thank you for any information. lyn Neale, Watsonville CA, 03/25/2016 if I can send photos and you would like to see them, please let me know where to send them.

  7. Tom Robinson says:

    I own a writing desk that has a sticker indicating it was made in Grand Rapids. The sticker also calls the destk a “General Pershing “writing desk and has a short history of the General. I am curious because there is no information, that I can find, on the piece. There are some stories of the General’s efforts to bring stationary and writing utensils to the Troops in WW1 but nothing on this desk. If anyone has information on the piece, I would appreciate a reply.

  8. Lynn Lodholz says:

    I’m looking for info on The Greenway Furniture Co. At auction, we found a large roll top desk. We want to find info and year it was made. It also said Grand Rapids, MI on it. Wood carved shell type handles.
    Thanks for any info.

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Sorry no help or input here

    2. Larry Eighme says:

      Have you found out anything? I just inherited a roll top desk that belonged to my Great Grandfather. Same thing. Carved Shell type handles. I am guessing turn of the century or before. The lock mechanism has Greenway Furniture Mfg, Co, Grand Rapids, MI.

      1. Todd McClure says:

        I would check with the Grand Rapids Museum they have a furniture section

  9. Michelle Gourley says:

    I have an antique table from Big Rapids Furniture Manufacturing Co, Michigan. There is a sticker on it that says License # 7 under patent #2,153,262. There is also writing underneath that says No. 2340 WAL 1137. Just wondering what this table might be worth.

    1. Todd McClure says:

      I would try Grand Rapids Museum they have a wonderful history section on furniture

    2. Jon N. says:

      I have the same table. Did you find anything more about it?

      1. Todd McClure says:

        I did not find out any more please check with the Grand Rapids Museum

    3. JP says:

      I also have that same table with the same sticker. Please let me know if you find out anything about this table. I am going to email the Grand Rapids Museum.
      JP

  10. John Patterson says:

    Have a small end table with the name
    Peter Brill. Zealand, MI. Any thoughts on this piece? I know there is a Brill up in Ludington, MI. They say they are not connected to my table

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Boy I am not sure I will ask one of our furniture makers in the shop tomorrow we are old but not that old in the mid 50’s. Zealand architecture may know of this person or piece but I would also check with Grand Rapids Museum. They have a real good furniture history section

  11. Anne Wallace says:

    Hi, I’ve got a lovely tall maple veneer chest of drawers which has a branding on its back “manufactured by the Widdicomb Furnituee company Grand Rapids Michigan” – would you have any idea when it might have been made? Thanks so much for your historical account, so interesting Anne , UK

  12. Sally says:

    i was wondering what a dining room table and 6 chair with two leaves from the True Grand Rapids Cabinet Making Certified would be worth. I have the Serial number. I would also like to know if possible what year it was manufactured. Thank you

    1. Todd McClure says:

      Sorry we don’t really know a lot about the older history in Grand Rapids check with the Museum

  13. Jim Winslow says:

    Todd,
    I’m related to William Thompson Powers and Ebenezer Morris Ball who had the first furiture factory and ware room (sales room) in Grand Rapids in the 1850s. Would like to sit down and talk sometime if you’re in the Grand Rapids area.

    Thank you.
    Jim Winslow

    https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com

  14. Mary Murdoch says:

    did you ever hear of burlingame furniture in the 50’s in grand rapids’mi!

    1. Todd McClure says:

      I would check with Grand Rapids Museum they have a furniture section

  15. […] and it boasts a handful of universities and colleges. Its history is characterized by a booming furniture manufacturing industry, and it is presently and commonly known as Beer City and the home of Art […]

  16. DAvid culver says:

    Hello my name is david culver I am a 4th generation furniture upholsterer. In 1629 my fore father came to America. I am not a branch of the tree but the root. I am studying the styles and quality of furniture made in the late 1800s early 19000s. Before the great fire and the quality of wood then versus now. I was America’s fore most specialist of fine federal furniture upholsterer and one of my achievements was that I did work for the Boston museum of art. I am no beginner. I can be contacted at dovetail upholstery. Earl culver is my grand father

  17. Chris smith says:

    I have a table which my Mother had. It has a metal stamp which says:
    True Grand Rapids Cabinet Maker.
    Certified 1-8689.
    Do you know anything about this. It is a small pedestal table.
    Thank you

    1. Todd McClure says:

      No sorry try Grand Rapids Museum

  18. Julia topoleski says:

    Please send me your email so I can send you a picture of chairs with your Grand Rapids quality furniture label
    They were my grandmas then my mom has had them for 50 years
    My grandma bought them New probably in the early 60s 🙂

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