|The Furniture IndustryThe Development from 1816 to 1945
by Paul A. Spengler, Our Town Magazine, Jamestown Vol.1 Issue #7
[corrections to original]
The Economic Development of Jamestown Before 1860
The industrial development of Jamestown before the Civil War depended primarily on two resources, wood and water. In the early nineteenth century, Western New York was heavily forested, with as much as 100,000 board feet of timber per acre in upland areas like Chautauqua County. Southwestern New York was rich in white pine, hemlock and such valuable northern hardwoods as maple, oak, beech, birch, chestnut, walnut, sycamore and cherry. Southern Chautauqua County was covered with dense pine forests.
The county was also crossed by several creeks which provided water power for early nineteenth century factories. The creeks did not, however, provide a unified system of transportation. Chautauqua County is divided by a large terminal morraine known as “the ridge.” The ridge is 600 to 1,400 feet in elevation and runs parallel to lake Erie, from three to six miles inland. West of the ridge, Cattaraugus Creek, Canadaway Creek and Walnut Creek flow into Lake Erie, while east of the ridge Lake Chautauqua, the Chadokoin River and Conewango Creek flow into the Allegheny River. Before the coming of the railroad, towns located west of the ridge, like Dunkirk, Fredonia and Westfield, were economically tied to the settlements of northern Ohio and Central New York, while Jamestown was tied to western Pennsylvania and the Ohio valley.
Overland transportation in the early nineteenth century was primitive and expensive. The high cost of transportation made it difficult for Chautauqua County farmers to import manufactured goods and prohibited the exporting of an agricultural surplus. Consequently, most farming in antebellum Chautauqua County was on a subsistence basis, while village industry consisted mainly of small artisan shops serving the needs of local farmers.
Timber was the only resource Chautauqua County possessed that could bear the transportation costs to urban markets. Soft pine woods were cut into boards, piled into rafts and floated down the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The hardwoods were burned and their ashes used to make potash. Ten acres of hardwood land yielded up to a ton of potash, worth as much as $200. The potash was shipped to New York and Pittsburgh, where it was used as an ingredient in the manufacture of soap, glass, baking powder and gun powder.
Jamestown’s location on the Chadokoin River, in the heart of the pine country, made it an early center of lumber milling. As early as 1804, Edward Work and Thomas R. Kennedy built a sawmill near Jamestown. In 1809, James Prendergast established the first settlement at “the rapids,” as Jamestown was then known. He built a sawmill in 1810, and two more by 1816. Other settlers erected additional sawmills, and by 1830 Jamestown was shipping forty million board feet of timber per year, with an annual product value of $250,000. So many new mills were built during the 1830’s that by 1840 most stands of first class pine timber had been exhausted.
Prendergast encouraged the settlement of skilled New England craftsmen in his village and many of them used their skills to launch manufacturing enterprises. New England artisans founded the village’s first woolen mill and cabinet making shop. Other Yankees founded a scythe snath factory in Jamestown that quickly gained a nation-wide market, and a sash and pail factory that sold its goods as far away as New Orleans.
By the eve of the Civil War, Jamestown had developed a variety of industries. However, most of the village’s business concerns were small establishments that provided for the needs of an agricultural area. Several factories manufactured farm implements such as grain measures, rakes and scythe snaths, while other entrepreneurs operated grist mills, sawmills, blacksmith shops, tanneries, wagon building shops and coopers’ shops. Manufacturing not directly related to agriculture was limited largely to three woolen mills, two cabinet making shops and a chair factory.
Until shortly before the Civil War, Jamestown’s industrial growth was severely hindered by lack of adequate transportation. In 1814, Jamestown was connected with the outside world only by keelboat. As late as 1880, some Jamestown merchants still traded on the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers from storeboats. Stage lines were opened between Jamestown, Warren, Mayville, Fredonia, Dunkirk, Erie and Buffalo during the 1820’s. While stage coaches were adequate for passenger transportation, they were not sufficient for the movement of raw materials or manufactured goods. Plank roads, built in 1837, connected Jamestown with Fredonia and Dunkirk, but these were still not adequate to provide the transportation needed if Jamestown were to develop into an industrial city. Although the first railroad reached Chautauqua County in 1852, it went through the northern part of the county to Dunkirk, bypassing Jamestown. Until 1860, when the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad connected Jamestown to New York and Pittsburgh, Jamestown developed far more slowly than Dunkirk.
Jamestown’s Furniture Industry Before 1860
The availability of wood and water not only made Jamestown a lumber milling center, but also made it possible for a furniture industry to develop. Jamestown was still basically a logging camp when in 1816, Royal Keyes started the first cabinet making shop in the village. Like many of Jamestown’s early manufacturers, Keyes was an immigrant craftsman from New England. In 1820, Keyes formed a partnership with another Yankee immigrant, William Breed. In 1823 Breed bought out Keyes’ interest and in 1837 he converted the business from a cabinet making shop based entirely on hand labor, to a water- powered factory. In 1827, Phineas Palmeter launched the village’s first chair making factory which, like the Breed factory, later converted to water – powered machinery.
The water – powered machinery used in Jamestown’s early furniture factories was very crude and most of the intricate work was still performed by hand. Nevertheless, by 1850 the Breed Company was selling furniture within a one – hundred mile radius of Jamestown, while the Rogers and Bill Chair Factory was shipping furniture in pieces to Pittsburgh. In 1858 Simmons, Tyrell and Company produced more than twenty types of chairs as well as bedsteads and other furniture. The company had large rooms for machinery, painting, finishing and storage. Most furniture factories built in Jamestown before the Civil War were located in the southeastern bend of the Chadokoin in order to make use of falling water. The area soon became known as Piousville, because so many of the factory owners were church deacons.
Economic Development of Jamestown after 1860
Several factors contributed to Jamestown’s rapid growth after the Civil War. Of great importance was the development of railroads in southern Chautauqua County, beginning with the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad which reached Jamestown in 1860. Before 1860, railroad development in Chautauqua County had taken place only in the northern part of the county and benefited towns like Dunkirk, Fredonia and Westfield. Jamestown’s only transportation before the Civil War was over rude plank roads, which were inadequate for shipping industrial goods. Lacking a railroad, Jamestown lagged behind Dunkirk. In 1855 Jamestown had only 1,625 people while Dunkirk had 4,754.
Jamestown’s political and industrial leaders energetically worked for the construction of a railroad, and in 1860, they were able to interest the builder of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in building their railroad through Jamestown. This gave the village a rail link with New York City and Pittsburgh. It also made it possible for Jamestown to import coal, the indispensible ingredient of nineteenth century industry. By 1865, the village’s population had doubled to 3,155. The building of additional railroads also boosted Jamestown’s growth. The Buffalo and Oil Creek Cross Cut Railroad, built in 1865, connected Chautauqua County with the coal and oil fields of northwestern Pennsylvania, while in 1875 the Buffalo and Jamestown Railroad linked Jamestown to Buffalo. Many towns in Chautauqua County subsidized railroad construction and in 1888 Jamestown promoters spent $1,080,000 to build a railroad linking Jamestown with Mayville and Westfield, which were on the routes of the New York Central, Pennsylvania and Southern Michigan railroads. By 1880, Jamestown had surpassed Dunkirk when its population reached 9,357 and by 1920, Jamestown’s population was 38,917.
The establishment of rail links made it possible for Jamestown to import raw materials more cheaply and export finished goods more profitably. Also, by the end of the Civil War, businessmen in Jamestown had accumulated enough capital from lumber milling to invest in new and expanded industries. In order to attract new industries, the city sometimes subsidized plant construction. In 1872, for example, $5,000 was raised by subscription to get the Union Boulder Pail Factory to locate in Jamestown, and in 1874 William Broadhead got a $15,000 subsidy to help build his first worsted mill.
Throughout the late nineteenth century, as agriculture became more mechanized, people moved to the cities, expanding the industrial work force and creating a larger urban consumer market. Companies which had produced agricultural equipment began making goods for urban buyers. The F. Simmons Company and the H. W. Watson Company of Jamestown, for example, had originally made farm tools, but later produced furniture instead. The arrival of foreign-born immigrants also swelled the urban work force. In Jamestown, the arrival of Swedish immigrants after 1865 provided additional skilled workers for the furniture factories, while English immigrants made a major contribution to the city’s worsted industry.
Jamestown never became a center of heavy industry. It was too far from the main lines of transportation, and its industrial growth began too late for it to compete with cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Jamestown survived, however, and continued to grow by concentrating on smaller industries that did not require great capital investment or highly expensive technology. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Jamestown specialized in the manufacture of worsted cloth and wooden furniture, and by 1911 it was second only to Grand Rapids as a furniture manufacturing center. The city’s entrepreneurs were also quick to branch out into new lines of light industrial production. In 1889, a group of Jamestown businessmen organized the American Aristotype Company, a pioneer in the manufacture of photographic paper, and in 1888 another group of Jamestown businessmen took the leadership in organizing the Art Metal Construction Company. Other metal furniture companies were soon organized in Jamestown and by 1911, the city was the leading manufacturer of metal furniture in the nation. Jamestown entrepreneurs also organized companies to manufacture a wide variety of goods, including metallic doors, voting machines, pianos, crescent wrenches, ball bearings and automobile parts.
The Furniture Industry in Jamestown, 1860 to 1920
In 1855, Jamestown had one chair factory and two cabinet making shops. By 1920, the city had twenty furniture factories, and by 1930, there were fifty. The post Civil War years brought economic prosperity to the North, while the railroads enabled Jamestown manufacturers to expand their markets. As the forests of southern Chautauqua County became depleted, furniture manufacturers were able to import wood. Immediately after the war, furniture production expanded. In 1870, the Jamestown Cane Seat Company spent $17,000 modernizing its plant while the F. Simmons Company converted from making farm tools to making furniture. New enterprises were started, including the Martyn Brothers Lounge Company (1865), Park Brothers (1865), Wood and Comstock (1869), the Jamestown Wood Seat Chair Company (1873), and the Jamestown Bedstead Works (1873). The formation of new companies was hindered for a time by the depression of 1873 to 1877, however, during the later nineteenth century additional companies were launched, including Shearman Brothers (1880), the Morgan Manufacturing Company (1890), and the Jamestown Furniture Company (1893). The first Swedish manufacturer of furniture in Jamestown, Augustus Johnson, began making doors in 1869 and beginning in the 1870’s, the Swedes organized a great number of furniture companies, including the A. C. Norquist Company (1881), at Atlas Furniture Company (1882), Carlson, Bloomquist and Snow (1885) as well as a great number of firms launched early in the twentieth century, such as the Elk, Anchor, Allied, Acme, Active and Level Furniture Companies.
Furniture factories were a cheap investment primarily because they were not highly mechanized and did not require large numbers of workers. Jamestown furniture was made entirely by hand until 1837, when the first crude, water – driven equipment came into use.
William Maddox, founder of the Maddox Table Company, invented a variety of furniture making machines, which he sold to manufacturers throughout the United States. He owed much of his success, as a table manufacturer, to his invention of a machine for polishing wooden table tops. As late as 1900, however, the principal machines in the furniture factories were slash saws, band saws, planers, moulders and shapers, and many operations continued to be done by hand. Electric, motors were not introduced until shortly after World War I.
Most furniture factories employed a relatively small work force. In 1894, even well-established firms like the Breed-Johnson Company, the Jamestown Cane Seat Company, the Morgan Manufacturing Company and the Shearman Brothers Lounge Company only employed from 50 to 100 workmen. Smaller concerns often employed only one or two dozen men. As late as 1920, firms such as Elk, Acme, Active and Allied furniture companies employed 50 men or less. Large companies in 1920 included the A. C. Norquist Company, with 125 men, the Atlas Furniture Company, with 200 men, and Level Furniture Company and the Bailey Table Company, with close to 300 men each.
During the late nineteenth century, some of the larger furniture factories employed women and children on a piece-work basis. In 1870, the Jamestown Cane Seat Company employed from 30 to 40 girls and boys, paying them $.10 per seat. The children usually worked at home, and made from 6 to 10 cane seats per day. For more intricate work, however, companies relied on skilled adult woodworkers. Before the Civil War most of the woodworking was performed by Yankees, while after the war the Swedes began to play a major role in the city’s furniture industry. Early in the twentieth century, Italians and Albanians also found work in Jamestown’s furniture factories. The small scale of enterprise, and the continued reliance on hand labor, rather than inexpensive [expensive] equipment, made it possible for furniture workers to organize their own companies. This was especially true in the case of the Swedes. Several firms, including the A.C. Norquist, Atlas, Advance and Level furniture companies were founded by immigrant Swedish woodworkers.
The growth of the city’s furniture industry depended also on entrepreneurs who sought new ways of promoting their products and expanding their markets. Before the Civil War, Jamestown furniture makers sold their goods largely in the local area. Even during the first two decades after the war, the market for the furniture was largely regional. From 1877 to 1886, for example, Jamestown Split Cane Seat Company sold its goods almost entirely in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. As transportation improved in the large nineteenth century, Jamestown businessmen were able to ship their goods profitably to more distant markets. At the same time, they were exposed to competition from other cities.
One of the ways in which furniture manufacturers in Jamestown increased their sales was by improved advertising and marketing arrangements. Until the end of the nineteenth century, dealers who wished to purchase Jamestown furniture made their selections from photographs carried by traveling salesmen. They rarely saw samples of the furniture they intended to order. One of the first manufacturers in Jamestown to experiment with new advertising techniques was William Maddox. He was one of the first furniture manufacturers in the United States to trademark his products, and in 1889, he sent a showman named Cedarine Allen on a world-wide promotional tour. In four months, Allen took Maddox tables to Great Britain, Spain, Egypt, Arabia, Ceylon, Malaya, China and Japan. The Ahlstrom Piano Company employed another advertising device when it appealed to ethnic pride by placing advertisements in Swedish-language newspapers urging their readers to buy their pianos from a Swedish-American company.
Jamestown’s furniture manufacturers took a big step towards improved advertising in 1895 when they held their first furniture exposition in the Celeron auditorium. No further expositions were held, however, until 1910. Between 1910 and 1917, furniture manufacturers began to exhibit their wares regularly in their factories and in hotels. They timed their exhibits to coincide with the annual furniture exhibitions in Grand Rapids, and furniture buyers began visiting Jamestown on their way to Grand Rapids. In 1914, several of the city’s furniture manufacturers organized the Jamestown Furniture Marketing Association. The leaders in this venture included a number of owners of important companies. In 1917, they built the Furniture Exposition Building, where manufacturers from the Jamestown area held regular showings of their new lines of furniture. By 1945 the association included thirty companies in Jamestown, Falconer, Frewsburg, Mayville, Brocton, Salamanca, Warren and Youngsville. The association mailed advertisements to over 10,000 furniture dealers and department stores, and advertised in a wide variety of trade journals as well as publications like Home and Garden, House Beautiful and The New Yorker.
The furniture industry in Jamestown also grew because entrepreneurs and investors took the initiative in launching new kinds of furniture concerns. In 1888 Arthur C. Wade, an attorney, and Alexis Crane, a druggist, took the leadership in organizing the Art Metal Construction Company. They were joined by Rueben E. Fenton, Jr., the governor’s son, and by Frank E. Gifford, a leading manufacturer of wooden furniture. They bought out the nation’s first producer of metal shelving, the American Shelf and Drawer Company of Milwaukee, and joined with firms in Saint Louis, Rochester and Milwaukee to found the Art Metal Construction Company, the first producer of metal furniture in the United States. Because of the leadership taken by Jamestown businessmen, Jamestown became the site of the company’s general office. The Watson Manufacturing Company soon converted its operations from farm equipment to metal furniture and in 1904 a group of Swedes organized the Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company. By 1920, there were six companies in Jamestown which produced metal furniture, doors and shelving.
Successful furniture manufacturers also helped promote the city’s development by supporting other business ventures. William Maddox, after succeeding as a table manufacturer, started a company to produce furniture making machinery. Arthur Wade and Frank Gifford, two of the leading founders of the Art Metal Construction Company, later took much of the initiative in organizing the American Voting Machine Company.
The Jamestown Furniture Industry, 1920 to 1945
By 1930, 50 of the city’s 110 factories produced furniture and two of them, Art Metal and Marlin Rockwell, were listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1945 furniture was still Jamestown’s biggest industry, but the number of furniture companys had declined to 25. A number of factors help account for the failure of so many companies. First, it was becoming more expensive to get raw materials. The great pine forest of Chautauqua County had disappeared by 1850, most of the valuable hardwoods had been used by 1875 and even the cheaper woods like hemlock, were nearly exhausted by 1900. The manufacturers were able to import wood, pigments, oils and resins by rail, however, these were often expensive items produced in foreign countries. By the end of World War II, Jamestown’s furniture companies still obtained much of their popular, chestnut, maple, cherry and some of the oak timber locally. Other woods and materials had to be imported from abroad: mahogany from Africa, ivarra from the Philippines and primaverra from Mexico, sienna pigment from Italy, umber from Turkey and Van Dyke Brown from Germany, tung oil from China and Central America, and most of the resin came from South America and New Zealand. It was especially difficult for small firms to pay for these imported raw materials. Trade was interrupted during World War II which made these items even more scarce.
Conflicts between labor and management also become serious after World War I. Prior to this time, workers in Jamestown were seldom unionized, except for a few years during the mid-1880’s, when the Knights of Labor organized a few craft unions. The Knights had few supporters among unskilled or immigrant laborers, and they quickly collapsed because of conflicts within the labor movement. Unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor began to organize in Jamestown in 1896 and by 1900 there were twenty-nine A. F. L. unions in the city. Like the Knights, the A. F. L. represented primarily skilled labor, but unlike the Knights they had considerable support among the foreign-born. Labor solidarity, however, was hindered by ethnic conflicts. On several occasions, businessmen made concessions on hours and wages, as long as they did not have to grant the unions legal recognition, and there was little violence until shortly before World War I.
Violent strikes became more common shortly before the war, and wartime inflation contributed to increased union militancy and to the reluctance of employers to raise wages. Consequently, in 1919, a mass strike closed 56 factories and involved 3,600 workers. Disagreement between moderate and radical labor leaders contributed to the failure of the strike, as did widespread public reaction against radicalism. Relations between labor and management remained very bitter for years afterwards. There were major strikes at Empire Case Goods and the Art Metal Construction Company in 1933, at the Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company in 1940, at the Blackstone Company in 1949, and at the Art Metal Construction Company, the Watson Manufacturing Company and the Jamestown Metal Corporation in 1955. Union leaders argued that wages in Jamestown were below the national average, while employers argued that the burden of rising wages and taxes force companies to leave the city or go out of business.
The most important reason for the failure of so many furniture companies, however, was the lack of capital to modernize. Before 1920, many factories had been founded with small amounts of capital and they were able to survive because manufacturing did not require highly expensive, complex machinery. Furthermore, until the end of the nineteenth century, many furniture companies in Jamestown traded primarily in a regional market. As Jamestown became more integrated into the national economy, and as furniture became more mechanized, it was increasingly difficult for small, marginal firms to compete successfully with larger and more efficient rivals.
Even before the Great Depression of the 1930’s, economic downturns had caused furniture factories to fail. The depression of 1873 – 1877 witnessed the failure of Gates and Langford and Ford, Wood and Comstock. Business failures during the depression of the mid-1890’s included Benson, Hand, and Frisbee and Schildmacher and Bauer. A number of firms went out of business, or were bought out by larger companies, even during the prosperous decade of the 1920’s. The Kling-Triangle Furniture Company failed in 1925 and the Ahlstrom Piano Company and the Jamestown Case Goods went out in 1926. The year 1927 witnessed the failure of the Liberty Upholstery Company and the Herrick, Supreme and Standard furniture companies. In 1928, the Bailey Table Company, Himebaugh Brothers, Schulze and Van Stee and the Jamestown Period Furniture Company went out of business. The Ideal, Allied, Level and Star furniture companies failed in 1929. The number of companies that went out of business during the two or three years preceding the depression indicates that many firms, especially the smaller ones, were finding it difficult to compete successfully in a post-war economy characterized by larger firms and greater mechanization.
The depression itself wiped out many furniture companies, especially among the smaller Swedish firms founded with little capital during the early twentieth century. During the worst years of the depression, from 1930 to 1935, several other companies ceased operations: Jamestown Mantel Company, the Modern Cabinet Company and the Active, Excelsior, Elk, Premier and Diamond furniture companies. The recovery of the mid 1930’s was followed by the recession of 1936 – 1939 during which Berkey Chair Company, and the Munson, Marvel and Dykeman furniture companies failed. Thomas, Superior and Anchor furniture companies, along with the American Carving Works and the Lake View Carving Company discontinued business in the early 1940’s.
This period of the 30’s and 40’s were not years of total failure, however. A few successful new furniture companies were founded, including the Aluminum Chair Company (1937), Burns Furniture Company (1939), the Falconer Cabinet Corporation(1946) and the Chadokoin Furniture Company (1946). Although the Wright Metal Corporation failed in 1934, its place was taken by the successful Jamestown Steel Partition Company, organized in 1940.
Many companies merged or were bought by stronger firms. As early as 1919, the Maddox family sold its table making business to the Shearman Brothers Lounge Company. The Jamestown Metal Desk Company underwent reorganization in 1935, emerging as the Jamestown Metal Corporation. In 1940 it took over the Ellison Bronze Company then in 1950 it absorbed the Exel Metal Company. By 1945, there had been extensive mergers in the furniture industry in Jamestown; Burns Case Goods took over the Premier Cabinet Corporation, Empire Case Goods absorbed the Cadwell Cabinet Company, and Kling Factories bought out the Triangle Furniture Company and Carlson, Bloomquist and Snow. Davis Furniture Company absorbed the F. M. Curtis Company and then merged with the Randolph Furniture Works, which had previously taken over the Eckman and Himebaugh furniture companies. Of twenty-five furniture companies still in business in 1945, the four strongest were products of mergers: Union-National, Shearman-Maddox, Jamestown Royal and Davis-Randolph.
In the decade that followed World War II, a number of companies in Jamestown were bought by firms which had their headquarters in other cities. The Chautauqua Plywood Company became part of Magnavox, the Curtis Machine Corporation was purchased by the Carborundum Company, Conroe Concrete became part of Marietta Concrete and Weber-Knapp was absorbed by a furniture company in Grand Rapids. Other companies, like the Daystrom Company, the Newbrook Machine Corporation and Empire Case Goods, left the city. Some, like the Swanson Machine Company and Croft Steel Products, moved to the deep South, where wage and tax costs were lower. In the early 1950’s, one Jamestown businessman noted that, during his years in the city, at least sixty-nine companies had left or gone out of business, while only seven successful new ventures had been launched. In 1945, however, none of Jamestown’s major furniture companies had left the city, and furniture making was still Jamestown’s largest industry.
The Furniture Industry and the Swedes
In addition to becoming Jamestown’s leading industry, furniture making also provided jobs and economic advancement for many of the city’s immigrants. While many of the foreign-born were unskilled laborers, other contributed important skills to the city’s industries. British weavers were very significant in the growth of the worsted mills in Jamestown, and the Art Metal Construction Company imported skilled German metal workers from Milwaukee. The wooden furniture factories employed some Italian woodcarvers and many Albanian painters and lacquerers. Italians organized the Paterniti Table Company, and the Maddox Table Company was founded by the son of an English immigrant. The most important immigrant group in the furniture industry, however, was the Swedes.
In 1865, there were 205 Swedes living in the town of Ellicott, which included Jamestown. By 1920 there were 15,025 people of Swedish birth or parentage in Jamestown, making the Swedes the city’s largest ethnic group. The peak years of Swedish immigration occurred between 1865 and 1900, and coincided with the rise of the city’s furniture industry. A large proportion of the Swedes who came to Jamestown were skilled shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths and woodworkers, and even at the peak of Swedish immigration in 1880, Swedes in skilled occupations outnumbered those doing unskilled work. A great many of the Swedes were skilled in making wood products and they quickly found jobs in Jamestown’s furniture factories, where many operations were still performed by hand. By 1900, the Swedes generally made up a majority of the work force in furniture factories owned by native Americans, and in companies owned by the Swedes, almost all the workers were Swedish.
There were two main reasons for this change in Swedish occupational patterns. First, there was a change in the origins of Swedish immigrants. In 1880 most Swedish immigrants were peasants or rural craftsmen. By 1920, Swedish immigration included a larger proportion of factory workers with industrial skills. Second, among Swedes already settled in Jamestown there was growing occupational diversity. Wooden furniture making had given the Swedes a firm footing in skilled occupations and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Swedes were able to branch out into other skills.
The first Swedish immigrant manufacturers in Jamestown also began by producing wooden furniture. Shortly after the Civil War, Swedes in Jamestown began going into business as grocers, tailors, cobblers and restaurant and saloon keepers. The first Swedish manufacturing concern in the city was a door factory, founded in 1869 by Augustus Johnson. During the 1870’s there was a rapid growth in the number of Swedish enterprises. Augustus Johnson became a partner in Jamestown’s oldest furniture company in 1870, when the Breed Furniture Company became the Breed-Johnson Furniture Company. In 1870 Olaf and August Linblad and P. J. Berquist began making custom-made furniture. C. A. Ahlstrom founded his piano factory in 1875 and in 1881 the Norquist brothers launched their first furniture business.
During the half century between the Civil War and World War I, Swedes in Jamestown founded at least seventy-five furniture companies. Most of them were small, and many of them were short-lived, but at least half of the forty furniture factories in Jamestown in 1920 belonged to the Swedes. Many of these companies were founded by Swedish craftsmen who saved money out of their wages, pooled their limited capital and took out bank loans in order to go into business. Some of Jamestown’s most successful Swedish manufacturers, including Charles A. Ahlstrom, Augustus Johnson and Evald B. Seaburg, had been woodworkers in furniture factories before going into business for themselves.
Swedes went into the furniture industry, not only because many of them were skilled woodworkers, but because, like native Americans, they found that it was relatively inexpensive to start a furniture factory. The A. C. Norquist Company was founded in 1881, when August and Charles Norquist, with $175 capital, began making furniture in the loft of their father’s barn. As business grew, they built a factory and by 1920 the A. C. Norquist Furniture Company employed 125 men, while another member of the family, Frank O. Norquist, had started two more furniture companies. The Level Furniture Company was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1905. At first the company employed only twenty-five men and made a cheap grade of bedroom and parlor furniture. By 1920, however, the company employed 275 men and produced better grades of furniture. The Atlas Furniture Company was founded in 1883 by Swedish immigrant workers with $1,400 capital. The Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company was funded by Charles P. Dahlstrom, an immigrant mechanical engineer, with the financial support of Swedish businessmen in Jamestown. He built his first factory on one floor of an old factory building in 1904. By 1920, the company comprised ten buildings and employed 500 men.
By 1920, the Swedes formed a considerable proportion of Jamestown’s business and professional elite. Of 425 prominent citizens the city listed in John P. Down’s History of Chautauqua County, one-third were of Swedish birth or parentage. The Swedes made up 40 percent of 193 business leaders born after 1850 and nearly half of these Swedish business leaders were furniture makers.
The furniture industry, therefore, not only provided jobs for Swedish workers, but also provided upward social and economic mobility for those who went into business. This industry became the means by which Swedes entered the city’s business elite. The Swedish manufacturers later diversified and founded such companies as Dahlstrom Metallic Door Company, Crescent Tool Company and Jamestown Metal Equipment Company which produced, respectively, metallic doors, crescent wrenches, and automobile heaters and radiators. In 1910, Swedish businessmen organized the Swedish-American National Bank of Jamestown of which several stockholders and directors were furniture manufacturers.
The Swedish people, through their contributions to the furniture industry, both as workers and entrepreneurs, helped make Jamestown a major center of the furniture industry. The role of the Swedes in Jamestown was not unique. They also helped make Rockford Illinois a major furniture manufacturing center and they contributed greatly to the growth of the emory grinding industry in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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