A Look Back…The story of Rockford furniture

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-WOH9EJ0LbD.jpg’, ‘Image courtesy of Eric A. Johnson’, ‘SKANDIA FURNITURE CO.: “Skandia Furniture (1888-1941) once ranked as Rockford’s largest furniture manufacturer, producing a variety of products including hall trees, ‘Viking’ bookcases, cylinder desks, secretaries, and pillar extension pages in this two-block-long riverfront plant (at 1202 N. Second St.), built in 1890 as ‘the largest single building in the city devoted to the manufacture of furniture…’” Eric A. Johnson writes in his book, Rockford: 1900-World War I.’);

Rockford, located halfway between Chicago and Galena, grew to be Illinois’ second-largest city due to its industrial strengths. The first industry of Rockford was the manufacturing of furniture. First nicknamed the “forest city,” the Rock River and dense forest made the area ideal for milling. In 1852, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad came to Rockford, and immigration increased. Swedish immigrants were attracted to the Rockford area for various reasons, and their skills were not wasted. Jonas Peters and P.A. Peterson led the way. Before long, Rockford’s furniture industry was established.

Due to material availability and the craftsmanship of the Swedish immigrants, Rockford’s furniture was, naturally, cabinetry involving carved wood accents. The first boom of Rockford’s furniture industry was in the early 1890s, ended by the economic crash of 1893. However, the most productive time for the industry was in the years following World War I. Several of the original companies remained from the 19th century, and many more opened. By 1925, more than 30 factories were making furniture in Rockford.

The majority of Rockford furniture was produced for the mass market, middle-of-the-road prices. However, the industry was so strong that it supplied the base for creative designers and business people to try new ideas. The furniture manufacturers were the impetus for many supporting businesses to open in the Rockford area. Artisans of stained glass were opening shop, fabric and hardware makers, furniture designers were trying new ideas. This may have marked the most creative and adventurous time in Rockford’s history.

In 1916, the Furniture Exposition Association built a white brick three-story exhibition hall. The building, built with Rockford products, was completed in seven weeks and featured furniture from 14 factories. The idea of a local exposition space was initiated by the leaders of four of Rockford’s largest manufacturers. It was estimated that the industry spent $125,000 per year to exhibit in other cities. Furthermore, furniture would be sold off at a ridiculously low price rather than being shipped back to Rockford. The first showing in January of 1916 was more successful than expected with buyers from Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha, Neb., attending.1 The showrooms were intended for wholesale only with new shows in January and July, the “furniture months.”2 The building got off to such a successful start that an addition was discussed immediately. Unfortunately, the success did not continue. The manufacturers found it necessary to maintain space in Chicago and Grand Rapids, an addition to the Exposition Building was never built, and the original structure was only used for a couple of years.

The industry formed the Rockford Furniture Manufacturers Association in 1924. The association was created to promote Rockford’s furniture. They created a logo that was affixed to all Rockford-produced furniture at that time. The association published a journal, The Rockford Furniture Herald, beginning in December of 1924. The journal featured articles about new products and articles designed to aid the salesman in explaining the more technical aspects of furniture making to the customer. The advertisements in the journal are the best aid in seeing the style of furniture produced in Rockford, as well as tracking the trends through the “less technical” articles regarding the latest product and craftsmanship. The Local History Room of the Rockford Public Library holds most copies of the Herald as well as several catalogs of the early companies.

The furniture of the first Rockford companies was made of primarily black walnut, a material abundant in the Rockford area, especially in the Pec “Bottoms,” the Pecatonica River northwest of Rockford.3 Veneers became extremely popular in the early 20th century, and most of Rockford’s furniture following WWI was veneered. This is an example of how the manufacturers of Rockford furniture were influenced by the tastes of the buying public. The raw material and craftsmanship were still available for solid wood furniture, however, the trend was toward veneers so Rockford made veneered furniture. Illinois Veneer Company opened to meet the demand.

Although the material changed, the type of furniture produced did not. Dining room and library furniture was the mainstay of the industry. This included buffets, chairs, china closets, serving tables, sideboards, bookcases and library tables. Some manufacturers developed a bedroom furniture line and specialty pieces. Most furniture was 18th century influenced, and designed for the mass market. Unfortunately, there is nothing remarkable about the furniture. It is extremely well made, exquisite craftsmanship. Most designs are copies or versions of furniture already produced in Europe. The designers of Rockford furniture were not on the cutting edge. This attitude may have been brought about by the fact that the companies were collectively owned, concerned more for the bottom line.

One piece of furniture is credited with keeping several of the furniture manufacturers busy for decades—the combination bookcase and desk. Designed by Robert Bauch in 1882 and introduced by the Central Furniture Company, the piece became an instant sensation. A salesman, Charles Cohoes, is credited with spurring on the company to invent something completely different, to give him something “new” to sell. The piece soon became a necessary item in every household, and most of the Rockford factories were building a type of the desk-bookcase combination.

It was an all-purpose unit, providing a mirror for daily use, drawers and shelves for storage space and convenient for household accounts and letter writing. Models ranged from $6.50 to $60. The most popular model was built by Union Furniture Company and sold for $17.50. One of these is in the Erlander House Museum in Rockford. Many factories spent two decades producing only a variation of this furniture piece, and it was shipped all over the country.

The Rockford Upholstering Company was started by Alfred Carlson and the first fabric manufacturer in the city. Carlson began with the Colony Chair Company and actually started the upholstery business using part of their factory. Carlson saw a void in the industry and filled it, supplying upholstery fabric to many of the furniture manufacturers.

Although most companies chose to walk the wellworn path, there were some people in Rockford willing to try something new. One such innovator was the Rockford Fiber Furniture Company. The furniture was made from paper and designed to replace popular reed furniture. In 1919, the company employed 15 people, and they produced 100 pieces each week. The furniture was made from a reed-like fiber consisting of coarse paper wound on fine wire and covered with a heavy glue. This was woven into furniture, which was then either painted or upholstered. Albeit the end product may have looked similar to any other furniture of the day, it was a step in a different direction.

In 1938, the Rockford Furniture Manufacturers Association hosted an exhibit at the Faust Hotel in observance of the New Sweden Tercentenary. It was reported in the March 22 Rockford Morning Star that the furniture was predominantly bedroom and dining room suites, mainly 18th century English and French influenced. However, the Empire Ltd., exhibit was drawing a lot of attention with its modern Mexican dining suite and the bedroom suite of bleached walnut. Unfortunately, by this time the industry was beginning to wane. Due to the Depression, furniture was seen as a luxury item. Companies that did survive were barely making it; 27 companies closed during the Depression. Another detriment to the industry was selfishness. In an undated article in a local daily newspaper, (believed to be early ’50s) Henry Lindberg, head of a furniture store, who began his career as a salesman for the Skandia Furniture Company, saw the demise of the industry this way:

‘“Rockford manufacturers were so selfish they took all the surplus and even capital to pay divi

dends and did not buy needed new machinery’ Lindberg said. He added that Southern factories hired one after another of the key Rockford people, and the result was that Southern-made furniture was greatly improved and sold for less than the Rockford product. ‘They bought the best wood-working machines made in Rockford factories.’”

An interesting article appeared in a Rockford newspaper in October of 1956 regarding the Landstrom Furniture Corporation. The article states the company has been in production for 77 years and employs 100 craftsmen, including women. (Other research shows that the Landstrom Co. opened in 1928; perhaps it changed names along the way.) They stayed with the Rockford tradition of bedroom and dining room suites made of native woods; maple, walnut, ash and cherry. Once in a while, exotic woods—mahogany from Honduras or teak from the Philippines, were used in conjunction with the native woods. The tradition was fading, however, Landstrom was one of six furniture factories still producing goods at the time. Landstrom closed their doors in 1958. Today, two of the original companies, Rockford Standard Furniture and Ello Furniture, are still in existence. Rockford Standard Furniture is retail only and no longer produces a line of furniture. Ello produces modern furniture; Marshall Field’s carries their line, mainly lacquer and glass.

Hardware companies, originally opened to enhance the furniture industry, soon took over and evolved into the current manufacturing core of Rockford’s industry. Although the strong industrial base that keeps Rockford alive, the product has changed considerably. Rockford furniture can still be found in antique stores and house museums.

1 Rockford Star, January 16, 1916.

2 ibid.

3 Rockford Star, November 9, 1930

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