‘Novelty’ Furniture Helped American Manufacturing Survive the Great Depression
The ubiquitous “smoker” was one of the most common novelties of the Depression era. This one was made by Cushman.
Have you ever picked up a book about American 20th-century furniture and marveled at the number of seemingly “non-furniture” items included in the pages? If you look around homes and estates originally furnished in the 1920s and 1930s, you might see many of the same items stashed away in nooks and crannies. The same holds true for old movies. The next time you see “Bringing Up Baby,” “It Happened One Night” or “The Maltese Falcon,” look at the sets. While it may feature the stylish, streamlined Art Deco of the period, it is also more than likely it is filled with small, non-essential items like wall racks and magazine stands, smoking stands and sewing tables. Where did all of that stuff come from?
It was the result of one of the most trying periods of American history—from the American Great Depression of the late 1920s until just after the Second World War. The great stock market crash of October 1929 was just the beginning, as the country was plunged into a deep depression that brought poverty to many middle class working families and threatened the existence of much of American industry, including the furniture manufacturing and retailing industries.
It became harder and harder, then virtually impossible, to sell a new dining room suite or a new living room ensemble to a newly impoverished family that could barely pay the rent and buy food. But there is always that small ember of burning desire to make small additions and improvements to the nest, so the furniture industry came up with a new product line—“novelty” furniture. Companies that could no longer sell the entire houseful of furniture found that they could help the housewife spruce up the dining room, not with a new suite but with a new novelty called the “tea cart” or “tea trolley.” True, the form had been around since the early 1920s, but it became popular after the crash. Not that American households served traditional hot tea in the English manner, but the name gave the wheeled buggy a nice little touch of much-needed class.
And if a little class was good, many choices in the class were better. Major players like Stickley Brothers of Grand Rapids entered the novelty market, offering as many as 18 different finishes and decorative schemes for it line of “hostess wagons.” And they came with tray tops, extra shelves, folding handles and a variety of wheel arrangements that were marketed under a number of names.
The major center of the novelty industry was found in Chicago, with its wide variety of manufacturers. One of the more innovative of the novelty makers was the United Table-Bed Company. It made the famous “Ta-Bed,” a bed that folded up to look like a small breakfast room table. It was marketed as a multiple-use product that “saves space, saves rent, perfectly combines in one piece of furniture the functions ordinarily performed by two.” The Storkline Corporation turned out a line of inexpensive baby cribs and juvenile furniture, while even the powerhouses of Chicago joined in the niche market. Tonk Manufacturing, finding the need for piano stools waning, turned to high chairs and music cabinets. Parlor frame maker Zangerle & Peterson turned to small tables and commodes, while Kruissink & Brothers turned from oak bookcases to wall shelves.
This hanging wall shelf was made by Butler Specialty Company of Chicago in the 1930s. The same shelf can be seen in a display of Butler products on page 308 of “Chicago Furniture - Art, Craft & Industry 1833-1983” by Sharon Darling.
The great survivor of the novelty makers was Butler Specialty Company, which formed in 1927. Butler specialized in magazine racks and wall shelves to survive the Depression, turning later to full-size, high-end furniture. Butler is still in business today, offering a medium to high quality line of furniture.
Another product of the novelty phase was perhaps the best-known sewing stand of the 20th century. No, not the Martha Washington. It was the “priscilla,” the small stand with the peaked top that opened on both sides below the handle. This little stand first appeared early in the century and gained prominence during the dark days.
But the prize of all the novelties was the smoking stand. This multi-purpose stand came into use just after the First World War and was popular until after WWII, even though it slipped a little in the 1930s. The stand focused initially on the pipe smoker, providing an enclosed humidor space, complete with moisture pad, in the interior. Many of the “humidors” appeared to be made of copper or brass but were in reality just sheet metal that had been painted or coated. Brass and copper were much too expensive for smoking stands. The smoker or smoking stand became the object of decorative fancy, utilizing the most outrageous woods possible. Zebra-striped “zebrano” veneer was a common material, as was Oriental walnut, the striped Australian wood. Applied decals and exotic paint schemes decorated many of the affordable stands.
One well known novelty maker outside of Chicago was the H. T. Cushman Company of Bennington, Vt. Founded in 1864 as a bottle cork manufacturer, Cushman diversified into “novelties” that led to such items as the pencil with an eraser on it, the first ink eraser and some of the earliest roller skates. Cushman introduced its first smoking stand in 1913 and it was the cause for factory additions in 1919, 1922 and 1926. In the early 1930s, Cushman expanded the line to include articles that fell in with the Colonial Revival movement of the day and became a major manufacturer of “Colonial” furniture. Over the years it updated its lines and eventually was acquired by General Interiors Corporation. The factory facility was used by Green Mountain Furniture to construct inventory for Ethan Allen from 1972 to 1978.
This little drop leaf side table is an excellent example of novelties made by Ferguson Brothers of New Jersey.
The Ferguson label is usually prominently displayed.
But the overall “King of the Novelties” title belongs to Ferguson Brothers Manufacturing of Hoboken, N.J. The Ferguson Brothers Manufacturing Company made furniture at its Hoboken factory from 1898-1953 and was family owned until selling to Sun-Glo Industries in 1953. At that time, the company was moved to Virginia. Back in 1934, Ferguson’s entry in the New Jersey list of corporations read “FERGUSON BROS. MFG. CO., furniture novelties, folding screens, folding tables, cedar chests, smoker stands, cellarettes, humidors. 720 Monroe St., Hoboken. Pres Harry Ferguson.”
Small items from Ferguson continue to show up almost daily at local auctions and antique malls.
Many modern furniture manufacturers today owe their existence to the survival mode adopted during the Depression and a large part of that mode was the design, construction and sale of “novelty” furniture to the American public.
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.