Who Really Made It? Outsourcing in the American Furniture Industry

Sears didn’t make the Gem Roller Organ, but it was one of the largest distributors of the turn of the century music box made by the Autophone Co. of Ithaca, NY.

One if the most frequently asked questions about a piece of older and antique furniture is, “who made it?” That seems to be a reasonable question, along with the other basic inquiries of “how old is it?” and “what is it worth?” But that first question is almost always the most difficult to answer and sometimes it is totally impossible mission.

The vast majority of furniture craftsmen in the 18th and 19th centuries did not mark their work. Sure, there are some notable exceptions—many of which are detailed in the excellent book “American Cabinetmakers, Marked American Furniture 1640-1940,” by William Ketchum, published by Crown—but even that comprehensive work is less than 400 pages in length to cover a period of roughly 300 years.

How is it then that so much American furniture, especially those of the 19th- and 20th-century, is unmarked? The answer lies in a term currently in vogue for shipping work elsewhere—outsourcing. We tend to think of this as a modern manufacturing occurrence but it has been a common practice in the furniture industry for more than 100 years.

One area of manufacturing even has a special name for it and it is still in practice today, although it is not as widespread as it once was. The piano industry, especially early in the 20th century, employed a practice called “stenciling.” This happened when a major manufacturer such as Kimball or Everett—or any one of the big plants—agreed to produce a limited number of pianos that carried the name of a special customer rather than the name of piano maker. The special customer may have been a major department store, such as Macy’s, or even a particularly important dealer or a very special individual customer. Probably the largest beneficiary of “stenciling” was Sears and Roebuck, which old mail-order pianos company employees had never even seen.

This dresser is marked “Colby’s.” John A. Colby was cabinetmaker in Chicago beginning in 1879. The name changed to John A Colby & Sons in 1885 and to Colby’s in the mid 1940s. But Colby closed its furniture factory in the 1920s and became strictly a retailer of furniture made by other manufacturers. This dresser was sold by Colby the retailer but Colby did not make it.

A very popular musical instrument of the early century was the “Gem Roller Organ,” a sort of hand-operated music box with roller “cobs” that produced the tune. In the 1902, the Sears catalog it was touted as “Our Gem Roller Organ” for the price of $3.25, a price reduction from the previous catalog’s price of $4.25” which “. . . was made possible by our contracting for the entire output of the factory which makes this wonderful little instrument.” That was the way Sears worked. In the front of the catalog, the process was openly explained: “We are able to make contracts with representative manufacturers and importers for such large quantities of merchandise that we can secure the lowest possible prices.” Sound familiar? That’s why it is impossible to absolutely identify the maker of the turn of the century Sears china cabinet other than to say for sure that it wasn’t Sears.

Another major area of outsourcing was also in the music industry—cabinet works for the various phonograph styles. The cabinets evolved as the phonographs evolved, but very seldom will you ever see a cabinetmaker’s name on a Victrola or Edison cabinet. You just assume that Edison or Victrola had its own factory to make the cabinets. Not quite. One example was the Udell Workshop in Indianapolis. Udell was a major maker of early Arts and Crafts furniture and also produced some credible Colonial Revival furniture in the Depression era, but it was best known for making the cabinets for the table model Victrola and Columbia turntables of the early 1920s.

As an aside, but still on the subject, one of the largest “independent” brands of talking machines was the Standard Disc Model A, sold by the Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago. It was made from top to bottom by Columbia with a Standard label.

This appears to be a fairly generic oak cabinet from the early 20th century and it could have been made by anybody and sold by anybody. But it happens to be a No. 911 China Cabinet made and sold by Larkin, offered in the 1909 to 1911 catalogs.

A variation on the theme was Edison’s approach. In 1917 Thomas Alva Edison purchased Wisconsin Panel and Cabinet Company, a maker of opera seats that had been incorporated a year or so earlier. Edison converted the factory to the production of cabinets for his newly patented line of phonographs. Edison Wood Products made phonograph cabinets until 1927. Demand for phonographs waned during the Depression, so in order to preserve the employment of several hundred employees, Edison decided that the company should make juvenile furniture under the trade name “Edison Little Folks Furniture.” That line has survived to this day as a part of Simmons Juvenile Products. Several major Grand Rapids, Mich. factories also made cabinets for the phonograph industry, but you will almost never find one of their labels on one.

Still another variation that makes positive identification difficult came from the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. In 1931, nine manufacturers from the area formed the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers Guild. The formation of the guild allowed the companies to collaborate to gain an advantage over individual competitor companies. They established a network of “Guild dealers” who sold only or mostly products from the guild. These products were identified by the brass tag of the Guild but most often did not carry the name of the specific company that made the furniture.

The label on the china cabinet (above) verifies that it was made in Larkin factory number 12 in Buffalo, NY.

One important exception to the outsourcing trend was the Larkin Soap Company. Larkin was mainly a soap company. Initially, when the coupon premium program for Larkin was instituted by Larkin’s brother-in-law Elbert Hubbard (who founded the Roycroft community), furniture awarded for coupons. This furniture was purchased outside the business. But as the demand grew, Larkin established its own major furniture factory in Buffalo and made nearly all the furniture it gave away.

Now, it’s easy to see why so much of late 19th- and early 20th-century American furniture is either unmarked or marked by someone else: because a great deal of it was sold by major retailers like Sears, Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney and countless others who outsourced the production and labeled the product in-house.

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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