THE PHILADELPHIA FURNITURE INDUSTRY 1850 TO 1880

ELIZABETH PAGE TALBOTT, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

While in 1850, Philadelphia could no longer claim to be the largest city in America, it continued to rank near the top of large cities in the proportion of economic activity devoted to various forms of manufacture. Philadelphia's relatively early acceptance of industrialization could be found in the more traditional industries where the majority of work had for years been carried on in small shops, as well as in the newer industries.^ The furniture industry was typical of those crafts which had a strong tradition of skilled labor, relatively few employees and time-proven techniques of construction and methods of doing business. The pressures of such an industry during the thirty years from 1850 to 1880 were relentless, for few could deny the potential for increased manufacture found in the large number of woodworking machines and other labor-saving devices available to the enterprising furniture entrepreneur. This paper is a study of the employees and employers in the Philadelphia furniture industry during this thirty year period and their response to industrialization.^ The Philadelphia furniture industry could be described as a small society, consisting of a distinct, but constantly shifting population of workers who were employed in a wide variety of businesses, ranging from small, short-lived enterprises to large, more secure operations. It is the aim of this study to examine (1) the workers who were employed in Philadelphia's furniture firms, and (2) the variety of firms in the industry, in general and in specific, in order to understand why certain businesses were more successful than others. The first two chapters rely on statistical information while the last four chapters depend on conventional literary sources to describe particular furniture firms, examined in relation to size and degree of mechanization in each firm.^ Four work environments are discussed: factories, manufactories, sweatshops, and artisanal or neighborhood shops. These four work settings differed radically from one another, reflecting varying methods of distribution, kinds of customers and types of employees. Among the furniture firms discussed in these chapters are those of Allen and Bro.; Cooper and Hall; James W. Cooper; John J. DeZouche; John A. Ebert; Gould and Co.; P. P. Gustine; Hale, Kilburn and Co.; George J. Henkels; Amos Hillborn; Daniel Karcher; Klauder, Deginther and Co.; A. and H. LeJambre; Moore and Campion; Daniel Pabst; J. P. Reifsneider; Smith and Campion; Edward D. Trymby; Gottleib Vollmer; and Isaac H. Wisler.^ The variety of experience described in this paper suggests the unpredictability associated with starting into furniture making. Some of the keys to eventual success were a large amount of starting capital, a strong background in bookkeeping and other financial skills, a good reputation for reliable and skilled craftsmanship and an aggressive approach to marketing. Obviously none of these attributes are unique either to the furniture industry or to the late nineteenth century.^ The most successful furniture manufacturers from 1850 to 1880 were those who steadily employed over twenty-five employees, who developed a reputation for quality products and who had sufficient capital to maintain a consistently large stock of raw materials and finished goods. Most of these makers catered to a middle and upper class clientele and provided a complete line of household furnishings, from upholstery goods to chamber furniture to parlor suites. The names that survive today on documented furniture are the same names that appeared regularly in nineteenth century written sources, suggesting the reliability of contemporary comments and the correlation between the extent of documentation and the relative importance of the manufacturer. ^

Subject Area

American Studies

Recommended Citation

ELIZABETH PAGE TALBOTT, "THE PHILADELPHIA FURNITURE INDUSTRY 1850 TO 1880" (January 1, 1980). Dissertations available from ProQuest. Paper AAI8018617.
http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8018617

Share

COinS