The Furniture Industry In West Michigan | A Cornerstone of Grand Rapids’ History
During the 19th century, the lumber industry was a key component for the Grand Rapids economy. As cities began to grow, finding a niche market was a crucial factor for success. The Grand River proved to be one of the most useful and profitable tools for the logging industry. Loggers could float their logs down the Grand River cheaply and quickly, opening up funds for other projects. Even after the arrival of complex railroad systems, the Grand River remained a main avenue for transporting logs. Grand Rapids quickly became known as Furniture City.
1836- A humble cabinet store opened and unknowingly kicked off a century of furniture production in Grand Rapids. The shop owner, William Haldane, came from Ohio to open his shop. William was one of the first people to start producing furniture in the city. While he may not have been the biggest name, or most famous shop, it cannot be denied that he was one of the first to open, bringing others to the industry. By the time the 1850’s came around, the first few mass production plants churned out residential furniture at a rapid rate. Within 20 years, which is incredibly fast for any industry, Grand Rapids had a world renowned name as Furniture City.
The first major recognition for the city’s furniture industry came in 1876. The Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia hosted some of the top furniture companies in the world. Multiple Grand Rapids companies received prestigious awards such as Berkey & Gay, and essentially put Grand Rapids on the proverbial map. Production only increased from here, with masses of people migrating to the city to work in the industry. By the turn of the 20th century, over half of the city’s working population were in the furniture or logging industry.
Industry Growth and Advocacy
As the furniture industry grew at astonishing rates, it became necessary to protect the workers from unfair labor conditions. It also became necessary to protect the industry against rising costs, as well as keeping Grand Rapids as the world front-runner for furniture production. In 1881, the Furniture Manufacturer’s Association formed in order to do so. Other companies around the country and world would try to take the credibility gained by Grand Rapids. They did this for their own benefit, selling inferior furniture and branding it a Grand Rapids piece. The new Furniture Manufacturer’s Association helped put a stop to that. By creating proper branding, all furniture made by members of the association had a label on it from 1899-1913. Multiple companies in surrounding states also ended up getting sued for trying to claim their products were made in Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids’ furniture industry had over 40 factories in the city at its peak. With all of these places to work, employers would do whatever they could to cut costs at their own plants. Over half the city’s workforce was somehow involved in the furniture industry by 1900. Often times, the way employers would save money, was by offering low pay. In 1911 this had its first major backfire and repercussions, when over 6,000 employees went on strike. This lasted four months before workers and employers agreed upon appropriate accommodations. Workers refused to work because of bad working conditions and poor pay. After the strike ended, production continued as usual until the Great Depression, when the city began to diversify more.
One of the largest catalysts for the furniture industry in Grand Rapids was the logging and timber industry. The Grand River served as the perfect way to get large amounts of timber from one place to another. This bolstered the local economy and furniture industry because the materials were easy to access and transport. This increased so much from the first factory built until 1833’s infamous log jam. Heavy rains that spring had brought the water levels up 20 inches, and lumbermen wanted to take advantage of this. Unfortunately, the logs got jammed going down the river and caused a massive dam. 150 million board feet of timber got jammed, causing two railroad bridges above Fulton Street and Wealthy Street to be completely destroyed by the pressure of the jam. A 35 foot channel had to be dug out in order to relieve the pressure enough to move the logs.
Logging continued to fuel the furniture industry in Grand Rapids until the Great Depression and WWII, when other industries became centrally focused on. The city today focuses on healthcare, office furniture, and beer. There are over 40 breweries in the city and surrounding area, and some of the nation’s top medical facilities. Grand Rapids has become one of the most prosperous and fastest growing cities in the state, not to mention the country.