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One if the most frequently asked questions about a piece of older and antique
furniture is, "Who made it?" That seems to be a reasonable question
along with the other basic inquiries of "How old is it?" and
"What is it worth?" but that first question is almost always the most
difficult to answer and sometimes it is totally impossible.
The vast majority of furniture craftsmen in the 18th and 19th centuries did not mark their work. Sure there
are some notable exceptions, many of which are detailed in the excellent book
"American Cabinetmakers, Marked American Furniture 1640-1940" by
William Ketchum, published by Crown. But even that comprehensive work is less
than 400 pages in length to cover a period of roughly 300 years.
How is it then that so much American furniture, especially that of the 19th and 20th century, is unmarked? The
answer lies in a term currently in vogue for shipping work elsewhere -
OUTSOURCING. We tend to think of this as a modern manufacturing occurrence but
it has been a common practice in the furniture industry for over 100 years.
One area of manufacturing even has a special name for it and it is still in practice today, although it is not so
widespread as it once was. The piano industry, especially early in the 20th century,
employed a practice called "stenciling". This happened when a major
manufacturer such as Kimball or Everett or any one of the big plants agreed to
produce a limited number of pianos that carried the name of a special customer
rather than the name of piano maker. The special customer may have been a major
department store such as Macy's or even a particularly important dealer or a
very special individual customer. Probably the largest beneficiary of
"stenciling" was Sears and Roebuck, selling mail order pianos they
had never even seen.
A very popular musical instrument of the early century was the "Gem Roller Organ". It was a sort of hand
operated music box with roller "cobs" that produced the tune. In the
1902 Sears catalog it was touted as "Our Gem Roller Organ" for the
price of $3.25, a price reduction from the previous catalog's price of $4.25
which "... was made possible by our
contracting for the entire output of the factory which makes this wonderful
little instrument". That was the
way Sears worked. In the front of the catalog the process was openly explained.
"We are able to make contracts with representative manufacturers and
importers for such large quantities of merchandise that we can secure the
lowest possible prices." Sound familiar? That's why it is impossible to
absolutely identify the maker of the turn of the century Sears china cabinet
other than to say for sure that it wasn't Sears.
Another major area of outsourcing was also in the music industry - cabinet works for the various phonograph
styles. The cabinets evolved as the phonographs evolved but very seldom will
you ever see a cabinetmaker's name on a Victrola or Edison
cabinet. You just assume that Edison or Victrola had its own factory to make
the cabinets. Not quite. One example was the Udell Workshop in Indianapolis. Udell was a major maker of
early Arts and Crafts furniture and also produced some credible Colonial
Revival furniture in the Depression era but it was best known for making the
cabinets for the table model Victrola and Columbia
turntables of the early 1920s. As an aside but still on the subject, one of the
largest "independent" brands of talking machines was the Standard
Disc Model A sold by the Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago. It was
made from top to bottom by Columbia
with a Standard label.
A variation on the theme was Edison's approach. In 1917 Thomas Alva Edison purchased Wisconsin Panel and Cabinet Company, a maker of opera seats which had been
incorporated a year or so earlier. Edison converted
the factory to the production of cabinets for his newly patented line of
phonographs. Edison Wood Products made phonograph cabinets until 1927. Demand
for phonographs waned during the Depression, so in order to preserve the
employment of several hundred employees, Edison decided that the Company should
make juvenile furniture under the trade name "Edison Little Folks
Furniture". That line has survived to this day as a part of Simmons
Juvenile Products. Several major Grand
Rapids factories also made cabinets for the phonograph
industry but you will almost never find their label on one.
Still another variation that makes positive identification difficult came from the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. During the
Depression in 1931 nine manufacturers formed the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers
Guild. The formation of the Guild allowed the companies to collaborate to gain
an advantage over individual competitor companies. They established a network
of "Guild dealers" who sold only or mostly products from the Guild.
These products were identified by the brass tag of the Guild but most often did
not carry the name of the specific company that made the furniture.
One important exception to the outsourcing trend was the Larkin Soap Company. They actually made all the soap
they sold. Initially when the coupon premium program for Larkin was instituted
by Larkin's brother-in-law Elbert Hubbard (who founded the Roycroft community)
the furniture awarded for coupons was purchased outside the business. But as the
demand grew Larkin established its own major furniture factory in Buffalo and made nearly
all the furniture it gave away.
Now its easy to see why so much of late 19th and early 20th century American furniture is either unmarked or
marked by someone else - because a great deal of it was sold by major retailers
like Sears, Ward, Penney's and countless others who outsourced the production
and labeled the product in-house.
Photo "rolorg.jpg Caption: Sears didn't
make the Gem Roller Organ either but they were one of the largest distributors
of the turn of the century music box made by the Autophone Co. of Ithaca, NY.
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at P0 Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or email@example.com
Visit Fred's website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book
"HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE" is available for $18.95 plus $3.00
S&H. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal
River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor's dvd, "IDENTIFICATION OF OLDER & ANTIQUE FURNITURE", ($17.00 + $3.00
S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of "COMMON SENSE
ANTIQUES by Fred Taylor" ($25.00 + $3.00 S&H) are also available at
the same address. For more information call (800)387-6377, fax (352)563-2916,
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org