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Furniture Labels: Telling the Makers, Retailers and Associations Apart

by Fred Taylor (04/13/10).

This metal emblem was used by members of the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild, beginning in 1931, to certify each individual piece of furniture by number as having been made by a Guild member.

This metal emblem was used by members of the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild, beginning in 1931, to certify each individual piece of furniture by number as having been made by a Guild member.

Furniture making in America in the 19th century ranged from the small shop, like that of Duncan Phyfe in downtown New York at the turn of the century, to the huge factories of Grand Rapids and Buffalo at the turn of the next century. Phyfe was one of the rare early century cabinetmakers who actually used paper labels and tags to identify some of his work. In fact, some items can be dated by the address on the label since his shops constantly expanded and the streets were renamed. But most makers of the early period either scrawled their name or mark under a drawer somewhere or didn’t bother to mark their products at all.

Beginning around mid-century, the advent of the factory system meant most furniture was made in a commercial facility under the auspices of a company name and very few individual craftsmen labeled their product. Even the companies of the time were a little lax in marking the work. By the end of the century, people like Gustav Stickley and the major manufacturers in Grand Rapids, Cincinnati and Chicago had developed elaborate logos and trademarks and few quality items escaped some sort of identification. This has been a boon to modern collectors, giving them the start of a trail of clues to establish age and origin of older furniture.

But like so many things of the 20th century, what started as a simple method of marking furniture quickly became confusing by the second decade. Finding a label on a piece of furniture now means that the collector has to know what kind of label it is to decipher its meaning.

Labels found on 20th-century furniture generally fall into three categories—Manufacturers, Retailers and Associations.

Manufacturers’ Labels:

This is who actually produced the furniture, from a design to a finished product. Many manufacturers had clues in the names themselves that left no doubt as to their identity. One of these was Colonial Manufacturing Co. of Zeeland, Mich., a famous maker of hall clocks. Another was Green Manufacturing of Chicago, a maker of parlor frames for the custom trade. The use of the word “manufacturing” in the company name was unambiguous about what the company did. Other company names, however, were less straightforward. Even some of the best known makers, such as Berkey & Gay, Century and Phoenix used only the term “Furniture Co.” in their official names. To the uninformed, this could be the name of a retail furniture store rather than a maker. Some specialty factories were a little better, including their main product in the name, such as Sikes Chair Co. in Buffalo or the Grand Rapids Desk Co. These offer a slightly more solid reference to the company as a maker and not a retailer.

Some variation of this Mersman Brothers label appeared on more than 30,000,000 tables made by the company.

Some variation of this Mersman Brothers label appeared on more than 30,000,000 tables made by the company.

The “Quaint” trade name was so popular for Stickley Brothers that it used it for various lines of furniture for more than 30 years.

The “Quaint” trade name was so popular for Stickley Brothers that it used it for various lines of furniture for more than 30 years.

This is the famous coin-style label used by Berkey & Gay in the 1920s and 1930s.

This is the famous coin-style label used by Berkey & Gay in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Cutler Desk Co. of Buffalo used this escutcheon plate for its label.

The Cutler Desk Co. of Buffalo used this escutcheon plate for its label.

This is a very early label for Heywood-Wakefield, circa 1921, when the name was first used after the reorganization.

This is a very early label for Heywood-Wakefield, circa 1921, when the name was first used after the reorganization.

This was the last variation of the Flint label in the early 1930s ,when the company was a retailer.

This was the last variation of the Flint label in the early 1930s ,when the company was a retailer.

Retailers:

Around the turn of the 20th century, the largest furniture retailer of self-labeled goods was Sears & Roebuck. Sears didn’t actually make any of its own products in its own factory. The company was strictly a retailer. It sometimes did have manufacturers make a specially designed line of certain items for it, but the mark on the furniture was always from Sears. This was also a common practice in the piano industry. A major store would have a promotional line of instruments made with its name on it, omitting the name of the manufacturer. That practice was called “stenciling” and is still in use today both in pianos and in furniture.

Another famous name found in furniture that is often believed to be that of a manufacturer is “John Stuart, Inc.” But John Stuart was a high-end retail showroom in Grand Rapids and New York that sold quality products made by, but unlabeled by, a number of manufacturers in Grand Rapids.

One clue that a company is a retailer and not a maker is the inclusion of another product line. An example is Hartman Furniture and Carpet Co. of Chicago. The inclusion of “carpet” is a dead giveaway. Hartman bought furniture from a number of factories, but when it was sold it carried only Hartman’s name. The same is true if the name of the company includes terminology like “department store” used by Federated.

A little more difficult to identify are companies that were at one time a manufacturer but later became a retailer or department store. One such example is the firm of Flint and Horner. George C. Flint was a mid-19th century cabinetmaker whose business was acquired by R.J. Horner around the turn of the 20th century. Flint and Horner became a well known maker of early Depression-era furniture, but sometime later it ceased manufacturing and became a broad based retailer in New York.

At then time this label was used in the early 20th century Robert J. Horner was both a manufacturer and a retailer.

At then time this label was used in the early 20th century Robert J. Horner was both a manufacturer and a retailer.

By the time this label was used, Horner was no longer making furniture and was just a retailer.

By the time this label was used, Horner was no longer making furniture and was just a retailer.

Associations:

Sometimes, the only label found in a piece is that of a trade association or guild. The most famous of these is the ubiquitous “Mahogany Association” that many collectors mistakenly believe to be a company name. Around the turn of the 20th century, aniline dyes were introduced into the American furniture market. This new tool for coloring wood produced some very confusing results. With anilines, almost any wood could look like almost anything else. The most common use was to make secondary woods like gum, poplar and birch look like more expensive woods, such as walnut and mahogany. Without proper labeling, it was easy to confuse the consumer.

As the furniture industry got organized early in the century, a number of promotional organizations took form. One of the umbrella groups was the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, based in Memphis, Tenn. It had several “service bureaus” within it to promote different woods. Among them were the Oak Bureau and the Gumwood Bureau. In addition, there was a separate American Walnut Manufacturers Association based in Chicago, the Northern Hard Maple Manufacturers in Oshkosh, Wis., and the Birch Manufacturers, also in Oshkosh. And, of course, there was the Mahogany Association in Chicago, which issued decals to assure a customer that the furniture was in fact “genuine mahogany” and not a cheap substitute.

This Mahogany Association label bears the number 123: the member number of the Imperial Furniture Co of Grand Rapids.

This Mahogany Association label bears the number 123: the member number of the Imperial Furniture Co of Grand Rapids.

This mark was used by members of the Furniture Manufacturers Association of Grand Rapids between 1899 and 1913 to identify true “Grand Rapids Made” furniture and to differentiate it from imposters of the period.

This mark was used by members of the Furniture Manufacturers Association of Grand Rapids between 1899 and 1913 to identify true “Grand Rapids Made” furniture and to differentiate it from imposters of the period.

Information Labels:

Some labels were designed to convey more than just a name or association. These labels have a story to tell.

In 1866, when George Clark developed a thread that was strong enough to be used in the newly invented mechanical sewing machine, he didn’t have a name for it. He simply called it “Our New Thread” and the initials “ONT” became a staple on thread cabinets after that.

In 1866, when George Clark developed a thread that was strong enough to be used in the newly invented mechanical sewing machine, he didn’t have a name for it. He simply called it “Our New Thread” and the initials “ONT” became a staple on thread cabinets after that.

This unusual label was found on the inside of a cabinet. It is not the label of the manufacturer but the label of the maker of the machinery that made the drawer joinery in the cabinet.

This unusual label was found on the inside of a cabinet. It is not the label of the manufacturer but the label of the maker of the machinery that made the drawer joinery in the cabinet.

This label, from the famous maker of Arts & Crafts furniture, the Charles P. Limbert Co., was used to announce that D. B. K. Van Raalte had assumed control of the company after the death of Limbert in 1923.

This label, from the famous maker of Arts & Crafts furniture, the Charles P. Limbert Co., was used to announce that D. B. K. Van Raalte had assumed control of the company after the death of Limbert in 1923.

The new version of the Hitchcock Company, formed in the late 1940s, used a distinctive label to make sure it was never confused with an original Hitchcock piece. The new label used backwards “N’s” in the label, something never used in the original Hitchcock labels of the 1830s.

The new version of the Hitchcock Company, formed in the late 1940s, used a distinctive label to make sure it was never confused with an original Hitchcock piece. The new label used backwards “N’s” in the label, something never used in the original Hitchcock labels of the 1830s.

Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

———————————

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. 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 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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25 Responses to “Furniture Labels: Telling the Makers, Retailers and Associations Apart”

  1. [...] April 15, 2010 by fossappraisal Furniture Labels: Telling the Makers, Retailers and Associations Apart [...]

  2. Nick Ryan says:

    A very interesting well documented article, Thank you, Nick

  3. Millie Golden says:

    Lots of information, as always, Mr. Taylor. Thank you for sharing with all of your readers and followers.

  4. Susan Polsky says:

    I love reading everything you have to say. I wish I could take you to some of the flea markets as I don’t know what is a buy and what is a leave it alone. Thank you for all your information……I hope to put it to good use.

  5. LAURA K says:

    DUETSCH BROS FURNITURE IN CHICAGO ILL. I HAVE A REAL LOVESEAT! I WAS TOLD IT COULD BE WORTH A LOT OF MONEY. PLEASE HELP ME :) THANKS!

    I DO HAVE PICTURES!!!!!!!!

  6. Sarah Carvalho says:

    Do you know of a book or on-line resource with furniture makers from 1770-1900? I have a table with a branded logo on the bottom that I can not find anywhere. I have pictures.

    Thank you!

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Sarah – One good book is “American Cabinetmakers – Marked American Furniture 1640-1940″ by William C. Ketchum, Corwn. Another is “Grand Rapids Furntiure – the Story of America’s Furniture City” by Christain Carron, Public Musem of Grand Rapids.

      If you can send me some clear digital photos of the table and the label I will be happy to tell you what I can. (No camera phone or Blackberry photos please.) You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
      Thanks

      Fred Taylor
      “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
      http://www.furnituredetective.com

  7. Diane Devore says:

    I have a Limbert Buffet. But, it is dark wood, Mahogany.
    I can not find anything about it on the net or in books. I want to find a value for it. Can you help?

    Thanks,

    Diane
    aip1976@hotmail.com

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Diane – After lImbert ceased to make Arts & Crafts furntiure around 1916, the company produced an number of traditonal revival styles until it went out of business in 1944. Dark mahogany pieces from Limbert are frequently found.

      If you can send me some clear digital photos of the buffet I will be happy to tell you what I can. (No camera phone or Blackberry photos please.) You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
      Thanks

      Fred Taylor
      “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
      http://www.furnituredetective.com

  8. cheryl says:

    I have a footstool that has a velvet fabric cover with what I believe is to be iron legs with claws. It is stamped on the bottom but I cannot make out the name of the maker, but I can read the following. ..Sept 6, 1899&July 17, 1900 Flint Mich
    . No7. Do you have any idea of its value or the manufacturer? Thanks, Cheryl

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Cheryl – If you can send me some clear digital photos of the stool I will be happy to tell you what I can. (No camera phone or Blackberry photos please.) You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
      Thanks

      Fred Taylor
      “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
      http://www.furnituredetective.com

  9. Henry Pacheco says:

    Dear Fred Taylor, I am in possession of 2 bedroom dressers that came from my Grandfathers estate. The tall piece has a paper label on the back that says Zeeland Furniture Manufacturing Company. There was some writing that has faded and cannot be read by me. I hope there is a way to treat the label and make the writing come clear. Both pieces say white oak but they are painted green. They have beautiful hardware that I have never seen on furniture before. From family information I believe they were purchased in or after 1907. Can you tell me anything about the pieces or Zeeland?

    • Fred Taylor says:

      Henry – Zeeland Furniture Manufacturing Co was formed in Zeeland, MI (near Grand Rapids) in 1911. Its specialty was Empire Revival style bedroom furniture.

      If you can send me some clear digital photos of the furniture I will be happy to tell you what I can. (No camera phone or Blackberry photos please.) You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
      Thanks

      Fred Taylor
      “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
      http://www.furnituredetective.com

  10. JJ Jenney says:

    Hi Fred,

    I recently purchased a buffett at a thrift store. I’m not sure of the kind of wood but it has thickly carved flowers in the doors and top drawer. My intention was to sand it down and paint it or stain it but as I was cleaning it up I found a mark on the back that is branded in. It is two 3/4 circles in a rectable and in several places it has “E.151″. Can you tell me anything about it?

    I’d appreciate any help or if you could point me in a direction to research more, I would very much appreciate it.

    Thank you,
    JJ

  11. Fred Taylor says:

    JJ – If you can send me some clear digital photos of the buffet I will be happy to tell you what I can. (No camera phone or Blackberry photos please.) You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
    Thanks

    Fred Taylor
    “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
    http://www.furnituredetective.com

  12. Patsy Cook says:

    Hello, Fred. Just wanted to follow up to see if you got the pictures of the two end tables that I sent on the 13th of July. They are True Grand Rapids certified M-20459 and M-20460 on the bronze labels. I also have an old Regulator clock which runs like a top which was taken out of the old depot in Plains GA and given to me by Hugh Carter, President Carter’s first cousin. I can also send a picture of that also if you think it is worth any value.
    Thanks
    Patsy Cook

  13. diane says:

    I just bought a vintage rocker recliner, it looks like something from the 60′s. It has the name Fashion Craft Mfg. Co. and the city is Tampa. I can find on information on this company.

  14. Julie says:

    I just recently acquired an old parlor set(sofa, king and queen chairs) that has a brass tag that says Perfect Parlor Furniture Co, Chicago, IL. I can find no information on this company on the web at all. I’m trying to date the set. It has never been recovered and is in very nice shape. I would like to know the approximate date it was made and any history about the company. If you think you can help I can send photos.

  15. Phil says:

    Looking for a list of scandinavian designers used by John Stuart, Inc. Do you have a source for this info? Many thanks!

  16. Connie Zullo says:

    Good day, Mr Taylor!

    I am seeking a bit of info from you b/c I can find nothing on the internet. I have inherited a very old pc of furniture from my family in western Kentucky. The piece in question is a very dark, large framed, pivoting mirror(almost 5′tall) attached to a short drawer base(2 narrow side by side drawers on top with a single wide bottom drawer). On the back of the mirror the furniture tag attached reads Memphis Furniture Co, Memphis, Tenn. I can find no date but there appears to be an embossed number on it that is unreadable.

    Can you give me any helpful hints for locating info about this company or this piece.

    My sincere thanks!

  17. Andrea says:

    I am trying to find some history on the Harley Smith Furniture Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I can find just a few public records that seem to disappear around 1914. They were located 231-233 Pearl St behind the Pantlind Hotel, which is now the Amway Grand.

    I have an antique set (dresser and vanity) that has no markings except for an old paper tag that gave me the above information. The tag is so old it crumbles in your hand. The wood looks to be mahogany, possibly banded. The handles have brass accents as well as the wheels, which I believe are brass as well.

    I am wondering if the Harley Smith Furniture Co. was just a retailer…or perhaps the mirror that was attached to the vanity is very old, but not the set itself. The set seems more art deco and truly doesn’t seem to be from the early 1900s, more like 30s or 40s.

    I wanted to know the history of the set before I “destroy” it. I am not using it, and would like to refinish it, and know that this ruins the value if indeed it is valuable to a collector.

    Thanks!

  18. Brittaney says:

    Hello, I have a ‘I believe’ to be a 1939 Imperial Co. occasional table. I was wondering if you could give me a price value on this piece? I can’t find any tables that have the same feet as this one online so I’m not sure if it is a reproduction.

    • Fred Taylor Fred Taylor says:

      If you can send me some clear digital photos of the table I will be happy to tell you what I can. You can send clear photos to me as .jpg files at info@furnituredetective.com. Please send the photos directly to me as .jpg files. DO NOT put them in an online photo album. Be sure to include a copy of your original inquiry so I can match them up or I will not respond.
      Thanks

      Fred Taylor
      “HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE”
      http://www.furnituredetective.com

  19. Michael Swain says:

    How can I identify a coffee table with hydralics that raises the table to regular kitchen table height? It has white painted number on the under-side of the table. The are 13 9705 235 and 120590. Thanks
    Michael
    678-873-8804
    michaelbswain@bellsouth.net

  20. Michelle Rhoda says:

    I have a wooden dresser that has a partially ripped paper tag on the back. My dad acquired as a child in the 1940s. It says Oxford furniture company and the rest is torn off. Do you have any idea where this company was located? I have wardrobe that looks to match it in style and craftsmanship and wood. Yes I can try to take a photo but the tag is dark and stained.

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