A Mersman Colonial Revival “surf board” lamp table features a lyre base popular in the Federal and Empire period of the early 19th century. (Courtesy Swedberg, “Furniture of the Depression Era,” Collector Books)
Any antique shop that has more than three pieces of Colonial Revival furniture is almost certain to have a Mersman table somewhere in the joint. Why? Because Mersman made millions of them. During the 100-plus-year life of the company, it churned out more than 30 million tables. In the 1920s, the company bragged that one out of 10 tables in American homes was a Mersman. It probably was more than that. Not bad, coming from a company that started out as a sawmill.
J. B. Mersman was a 19th-century sawyer with mills in Angola and Kendallville in extreme northeastern Indiana. He relocated his operations across the state line to Ottoville, Ohio, and when the lumber business turned soft around 1876, he started making tables under the name Mersman Tables. From his first table, he went on to make beds and bed parts, too. So successful was he that the nearby city of Celina, Ohio solicited him to build a factory there and provided $7,500 of seed money for the operation. That turned out to be a good investment by the city fathers. He was up and running in Celina by 1900, making beds, library tables and dining tables.
But the precision details that were required to successfully produce large volumes of furniture were not to the liking of the old sawmill operator. He turned the business over to his two oldest sons, Edward and Walter, and their partner Henry Lenartz, a banker. With the old business out of the way, Mersman headed for Arkansas to start up another sawmill operation. The furniture company continued operation under the new name of Lenartz and Mersman Brothers until 1906, when Edmund Brandts bought out Lenartz. The company then became known as Mersman Brothers and Brandts Company. Later that year, it was incorporated under the slightly altered name of Mersman Brothers Brandts Company. At that point, it employed more than 100 workers producing medium-quality dining tables for shipment throughout the country.
The ubiquitous Mersman triangle.
In the 1920s the company was producing an extraordinary line of dining and occasional tables. One of its strongest sellers was the “davenport” table—the company name for what is now known as a sofa table. In 1928 alone it offered 139 varieties of davenport tables, ranging in price from $12 to $80, a princely sum in 1928. The company had changed its name again in 1927 and was now known as The Mersman Bros. Corporation. While still home based in Celina, the company had warehouses scattered across the country in major metropolitan areas including New York, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
The product offerings in the 1920s and 1930s included a number of lines of dining tables and bedroom furnishings, but the concentration was clearly on occasional and special purpose tables. A sample product listing in 1929 included library tables, davenport tables, davenport extension tables, console tables (with or without mirrors), gateleg tables, coffee tables (among the very first) and radio table cabinets. The manufacture of radio cabinets became an important part of the business, tracking the ever-growing popularity of the new medium.
This Mersman drum table has the lyre base usually found on the “surfboard” table.
The construction techniques and materials used by Mersman during the’20s, ’30s and ’40s were typical of the period, especially in its “popular” (low end) and medium-grade tables. The solid stock used for legs was primarily gum—the most frequently used wood in furniture production in America in 1928. Gum was readily available, reasonably priced and easily disguised as almost any other wood. Ordinarily subject to extreme warping and twisting during curing, gum had gained prominence only after new kiln-drying techniques were developed early in the century.
The elaborately inlaid or veneered tops were all made of lumber core plywood—the furniture construction standard of the day. It consisted of five layers of wood, cross-banded to prevent warping. The most common woods for veneers and trim used by Mersman in the ’20s and ’30s were, in the company’s words, “brown mahogany, plain burl, rotary cut and butt jointed walnut, rosewood, blistered maple, birds-eye maple, zebra veneers, ebony, redwood burls, satinwood and Russian oak.”
The underside of this model number 7643 Mersman table shows the thin plywood edge used for a skirt.
To its everlasting credit, Mersman not only produced the furniture, it worked with the retail merchants to develop a marketing and advertising plan for specific markets. It provided, free of charge, camera-ready art for newspaper advertisements. It also developed what it called “The Mersman Idea Book,” a loose-leaf compendium of marketing ideas and strategies, as well as helpful hints on accounting practices and inventory control. The book was updated with regular additions and was free of charge to any retail furniture establishment who sold Mersman products. It included not only ideas from the company, but also examples of what techniques had worked for other merchants in different areas of the country.
During World War II, Mersman—like most of the rest of the country—was involved in wartime production, making benches, tables and desks for the military and plywood for the Lend/Lease program. After the war, it concentrated even more directly on living room tables, letting the rest of the line fade.
The model number 7643 table has a Formica top and a secondary wood base.
Mersman Brothers was acquired in 1963 by Congoleum. Then it was sold it to a private investment group in 1977, which operated the company under the name initially used by J. B. Mersman: Mersman Tables. At its height, the company had 700,000 square feet of manufacturing space and employed more than 750 people in Celina and in Eupora, Miss. The company ceased production in 1995.
Examples of Mersman products can be found almost anywhere. In spite of their excellent construction and sometimes innovative styling, Mersman tables today have little collector’s value due to their overwhelming availability, with over 30,000,000 examples having been produced with many of them still on the market.
This is a very early Mersman table from the early 20th century with lions heads on the posts.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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