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Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > The Formation of the Heywood-Wakefield Company was a Long Time Coming

The Formation of the Heywood-Wakefield Company was a Long Time Coming

by Fred Taylor (09/18/12).

This chair has the Heywood Brothers & Co label and was made between 1861 and 1897.

One of the best known names in American furniture of the 20th century is the venerable firm of Heywood-Wakefield of Gardner, Mass. Almost everyone is familiar with the modern lines of H-W that were introduced in 1936 and made continuously—even through the Second World War—until 1966.

Some of the early models in the Heywood-Wakefield line of modern furniture predated what became the most popular of the furniture styles, the Streamline Modern. There was a separate class of modern furniture designed for the company by Gilbert Rohde, made with walnut veneer, and he did contribute a few blond maple designs after he left for Herman Miller. Some of the Streamline Modern pieces were even designed by world renowned designers Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and Leo Jiranek, earning them medallions placed in the drawers of bedroom pieces they designed.

But primarily, the Streamline Modern line stood on its own, encompassing the modern lines of the 1930s Art Moderne movement into furniture that was affordable to the average family, even during the Great Depression. Throughout the four decades of Streamline, Modern and Contract Modern production, Heywood-Wakefield is credited with producing more modern furniture than any other company.

But it was long road to get there, and the idea of the Heywood-Wakefield name is a rather modern concept by itself.

The Heywood brothers—Walter, Levi, Seth, Benjamin and William—began making wooden chairs in Gardner in 1826, primarily by hand, using only a foot-powered lathe as machinery. Walter started the business and was joined by Levi and Benjamin. Levi moved to Boston to open a retail outlet for the chairs in 1831, and William joined the firm. The building burned in 1834 and, in order to reopen, the Heywoods formed a partnership with Moses Wood and James Gates, calling the new business venture B. F. Heywood & Company. A new factory was built and modern machinery added, but that didn’t suit everyone, and Levi became the only Heywood left in the business. In 1844 he formed a new partnership with Moses Wood—Heywood & Wood—but Wood’s name had disappeared by 1849 and the company was called Levi Heywood & Company. It was then incorporated as Heywood Chair Manufacturing Company.

This is the label used by the firm Heywood Brothers & Wakefield Company in their Baltimore plant between 1897 and 1921.

This label was used in the Heywood Brothers & Wakefield Chicago factory.

Youngest brother Seth joined in 1861 and the company became Heywood Brothers & Company, solidifying the first half of a name to become famous 75 years later.

While the Heywoods were sorting themselves out, another young entrepreneur, Cyrus Wakefield, was busy inventing the rattan and reed business of America. In 1826, Wakefield was in the grocery business with his brother in Boston. In 1844 he saw a ship discard a bundle of rattan on the dock. The rattan was used to cushion loads of freight on ships and was discarded in port. Wakefield sold the scrap rattan to basket makers, who stripped off the hard outside shell, using only the soft core in their weaving. The outer shell was then sold to chair makers for seating material.

Wakefield acquired a factory in 1855 and began making reed baskets and hoops for hoop skirts under the name Wakefield Rattan Company. The accepted spelling at the time was “rattan,” but Wakefield used his own spelling of “rattan.” Wakefield and his assistant William Houston invented a machine to use the scraps and shavings of rattan to weave floor coverings, mats and bailing cloth. In 1870, Wakefield Rattan introduced a loom that wove a continuous sheet of cane webbing for use in the chair seat industry. The business grew and Wakefield had his own clipper ships bringing in raw material from the East. The company was incorporated in 1873 just before Cyrus’ death. A nephew, Cyrus Wakefield II, came in from Singapore to assume the reins of the growing company, which by the fourth quarter of the century, had opened warehouses in New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

This is a Heywood-Wakefield CM 971 G Aristocraft Cocktail Table perched on two CM 972 G Aristocraft End Tables. They were originally produced in the mid-1950s.

It was inevitable that the two companies would collide sooner or later. The first serious encounter was in Chicago in 1883, when representatives of each company met to find a suitable factory to establish a joint manufacturing operation. Initially, the search failed, but on the second day the Wakefield rep found a suitable location and the company decided to keep it for itself, leaving the Heywoods fuming.

By the 1890s, no Wakefield was involved in the company. It was run by Charles H. Lang and a new generation of Heywoods—in the form of Henry Heywood—ran that business. In 1897, the two principals decided to merge the rival companies, creating the Heywood Brothers & Wakefield Company, with Henry Heywood as president. In this format, the company became the largest chair manufacturer in the world and the world’s largest rattan importer, as well as being the largest manufacturer of cane and reed products and baby carriages.

The final piece of the puzzle would soon fall in place. Creative inventor Marshall B. Lloyd was making wire doll carts, boy’s wagons and baby carriages out of hand-woven reed. In 1917, his factory work force went on strike and during the layoff Lloyd invented a loom to weave fiber, producing wicker baby carriages without the expensive and time-consuming hand-weaving process. This was too good an opportunity for Heywood Brothers & Wakefield to pass up. The company acquired Lloyd’s factory and his “Lloyd Looms” and reincorporated itself in 1921 as Heywood-Wakefield, the name by which it would become synonymous with modern furniture.

This reproduction cobbler’s bench was made by Heywood-Wakefield in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the “Early American” decorating fad.

That means that by one definition of “antique” currently in use—the so called “hundred year” rule—there are no Heywood-Wakefield antiques.

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

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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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