History of furniture industry in North Carolina
Barrentine describes the rise of North Carolina's furniture industry, which emerged after the Civil War and overcame northern resentment to establish itself as an international force. The idea for a central marketplace emerged in the early 1900s, and the tradition continues today in the International Home Furnishings Furniture Market.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Richard Barentine, January 28, 1999. Interview I-0068. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
RB: At some point -- and this might be the best place to do it -- I think we need to go all the way back to why this event's here and that would take us all the way back to the end of the American Civil War. So, let's do that and get us through that period of history and then get us to the World War Two era, which is the era that the organization and I both have served in.
RB: North Carolina has a very rich heritage of cabinet making. If you look back at the history of the state and if you look all across the state from the coast to the mountains, you find excellent examples of fine cabinetry. In many instances it was copied from the pattern books of the great European cabinetmakers. Then it had some vernacular adaptations, and it became ours. You had the Swicegoods in Davidson County. You had the Moravians in both Salem and Bethabara. You had Thomas Day in Caswell County and then many others whose names are familiar in history, but those are some significant ones. What they made provided the basis for the skill. Why they made it was because we had the raw materials. We had the wonderful Appalachian hardwood forests running through this area. We still have it. At the end of the American Civil War, the railroad had been destroyed. The north [to] south railroad [system] had been destroyed. During Reconstruction -- the early part of Reconstruction -- it was fully understood that if we were going to get commerce moving again, we had to repair that railroad. “We” being the north and the south, because this was a combination of northern entrepreneurs who had come south and southern landowners, timber people, and enlightened citizens. What brought those northern entrepreneurs here in many instances was hunting. High Point was a mecca for bird hunters. They had the huge lodges--.
JM: Quail hunters?
RB: Quail hunters -- dove and quail. So, there was an easy mixture between the north and the south at that point of Reconstruction. People like Colonel Francis Fries from Winston-Salem -- who was a major industrial entrepreneur -- and others came through. With the support of other people, we can get a railroad built. They went to Mr. Bassett. They went to Mr. Burnhart. They went to Mr. Broyhill, [and to] the Finches in Thomasville and others who owned timber and who were sawmillers. They said, “We want the sawmill. We want you to sawmill the crossties to build this railroad.” So, they did that. That was wonderful work. We had the raw materials. When the railroad was finished, then lumber started being shipped out of here as the principal cash crop. In the 1870s and '80s that was about all we were doing here. As a cash crop, it didn't take the southern entrepreneurs and the northern entrepreneurs long to figure out that we ought not to be shipping lumber. We ought to be shipping furniture. So, in about 1880 -- almost simultaneously in other parts of North Carolina -- mass produced furniture started being made. I believe this city dates it [to] about 1888 as the beginning [the year] of mass produced furniture. So, in the '80s, it must have been a wonderful time in the south, particularly in this part of the south because--.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
RB: A large idle workforce was put to work. The quality of life -- the standard of living -- immediately was ready to change because people had jobs. There was a focus on the future. It was natural that we were doing this because we had the basis for building the cabinetry. We had the heritage of the handmade [furniture], and now we would do machine made [furniture]. Well, we started off in that period of time making not the finest furniture. What the southern manufacturers wanted to make was furniture for everybody. We were scoffed [at] a little. Of course, we were scoffed at by Jamestown and Grand Rapids and Chicago and New York because we quit sending them the lumber. We, as upstarts, got into the furniture manufacturing business. Who did we think we were? Well, we actually knew who we were. We made furniture, and we shipped it north. We put it in these nice wooden crates called cases. Unfortunately for our furniture manufacturers, we didn't know this for a long time. The people on the other end didn't really care about the furniture. They wanted the cases because they had very fine lumber that they could then make furniture out of. That's where the word case goods comes from. It's wooden furniture. We learned quickly that we could build a finer product. Most factories built a single piece of furniture. They built a bed, and this factory would build a dresser. Through consolidation people bought factories, and that's how we ended up with bedroom suites in rooms. It was happenstance. Today many manufacturers of dining room furniture don't make their chairs. They make the table, but they don't make the chairs. So, there's still some of that going on. Here we were, [in the]1880s, making all this furniture [that was] on a railroad that was bringing northern retail furniture dealers through here. Maybe they stopped to hunt. Maybe they were on their way to Florida. It didn't matter. They were coming through. The southern manufacturers had not gotten a very warm reception in Grand Rapids and Chicago and Jamestown when they wanted to show in those furniture markets.
JM: Because of perceived insufficient quality?
RB: I think that was part of it. I think we had--.
JM: The resentment?
RB: There was probably a healing process that wasn't quite complete. We had, after all, stopped shipping them lumber. Here we were competing, and I could expect that the northerners felt towards the southerners what we in the United States sometimes feel about exports from other countries. This was stuff coming from virtually another country. They had never had this kind of competition in the north. The people in the south didn't really like the way they were being treated in the north. They realized that they were getting started, but they needed a way to market this product. There were several efforts in the late 1880s to bring buyers to this area. They weren't very well organized. They were sort of civic, sort of industrial, but not very well organized. They'd have them one year, and then they wouldn’t have them. It would depend on this railroad traffic because in the 1880s, that's the only way you got down here. People in the community and in the industry decided that we need to do this a little differently. We know we have the product, and we know that people want this product. We just need to get it into the mass merchandising networks and not just carry this stuff around on wagons and try to sell it. That's how a lot of it was done. It was done by peddlers who just would come in and pick up the stuff. You can got to museums today and see the fine, nicely crafted little miniatures, and those were salesmen's samples. They would just take those with them. So groups of interested manufacturers and industrialists and civic leaders decided that they would put together an event that had home furnishings or furniture from all the southern states. So, in 1909 they held the first Southern Furniture Market. That's a big name. They had figured it out. They weren't going to be High Point. That meant it was just what was made here. They reached out and embraced thirteen southern states -- the twelve other southern states -- and said, “You don't like the way you're being treated in Chicago? Well, we're going to have this event in North Carolina.” We were already making a lot of furniture. There wasn’t anybody in the furniture industry that didn't know us. So, they decided, “Well, we'll have this event. We'll call it the Southern Furniture Market. We'll invite all the southern states to send products.” We don't know, in 1909, who came. But, what a wonderful idea. What a wonderful foundation to build the world's largest market. I don't know, in 1909, who thought of the name. I don't know who decided, “That's going to last 80 years. That name's going to hold true. Eventually those people who have slighted us in Chicago and Jamestown and Grand Rapids are going to have to say ‘Southern Furniture Market’.” I don't know, if they thought that, if they lived to see it. The event lived to see it.
By 1913, the event was held twice a year, very successfully. Still, it was being held in small buildings, mostly in the upstairs of existing buildings in the uptown area. We don't know how many buyers came in 1909, but we do know in 1913 that the event used 30,000 square feet of space. It had space in eight different buildings here in High Point and Thomasville. There were a hundred furniture manufacturers, and four hundred qualified buyers came to that event in 1913. So in the few years, from 1909 to 1913, this event had gathered some stature. This city had a complement of good hotels. The train stopped right there at Main Street. The hotels were within walking distance, and the buildings that were used were within walking distance. The factory district in High Point and Thomasville was bustling. There was furniture being manufactured in Hickory and Lenoir and Morganton and Marion and Drexel -- everywhere in North Carolina. It was the economic engine of the 1880s because of the raw material and the workforce.
From 1913 on the Market began to grow rather dramatically. In the late '20s, a group of investors built the Southern Furniture Exposition Building, which still stands today as one of the core buildings of the International Home Furnishings Center. I guess that building was probably about nine stories, maybe ten, when it was built. It was a very solid expression of confidence in the industry and in the event. You know, by that time the event was pretty well established. The quality of the furniture had greatly improved. The number of manufacturers had consolidated. They still were mostly kin to each other. The event was theirs. It was a business event for the purpose of getting buyers to come to see this product. I had a conversation several weeks ago with the recently deceased Herman Bernard. Herman was one of our carriers of history. Herman had been in the furniture industry in this city for many, many years and would sit and tell stories about the Market and could remember when the Southern Furniture Exposition Buildings was built. He said, “You know, it was just this massive open core -- no partitions, no walls, and no curtains. You just went in on the floor and everything was just there. You were standing right next to your competitor looking at what they made, and they were looking at what you made.” He said, “Then we finally put some curtains up because it was getting a little too close for comfort. We put some walls up.”
So the event has been one that has evolved. It has evolved at the same pace that this city has evolved. We've not outstretching its capacity. The event has been here so long, it is referred to as “Market” and that is a capital M. Nobody outside of this town misunderstands what you're talking about. You're going to Market. You're not going to the grocery store. It's with a capital M. That got the event well established. The buyers were coming down. They also didn't just come to High Point and Thomasville. They took these motor excursions and went to the factories in Lenoir and at Bassett. They were going around to those factories. First, they were going to buy closeouts. “What kind of deals you've got?” “Closeouts.” “We're going to come down here.” A lot of that was done in January and July -- kind of look at that Florida schedule, too. How do we do business? Well, we do business sometimes because it's where we want to be. But then, as the Market grew, more and more exhibitors came down to Southern Furniture Exposition. That building from the late '20s to the '60s dominated the landscape without much competition from other real estate developments. There were a few. The '60s saw a great growth spurt in other kinds of showrooms.
During the First World War, everybody made war materials. We had a break there during the First World War. [During] the Second World War, there were no markets held. The whole industry was making war materials. The Southern Furniture Exposition Building was a record office for personnel records for the Armed Forces. All across the United States, the government took over various buildings. This was a perfect building to take over because it was empty. They stored personnel records there throughout the Second World War, which also attests to the national influence that this city had gained by that time. For people in Washington to identify a building in High Point, North Carolina as being suitable for this sort of activity. So, the stature of the city had increased as this event had increased. Obviously, there are other things that have caused its stature to increase including textiles, but furniture has been the partner that has driven this city to worldwide recognition. It still continues to do it today.
At the end of the Second World War, as anyone who was born near it or reads their history knows, that there was this great burst in the economy. All of the veterans were coming back. I remember as a kid just hundreds of houses under construction at one time. Every other one was different. They had three or four plans. As a kid, we'd go to these vast subdivisions and go and look in all the--. we'd never seen that many houses being built because right before the Second World War, there weren't that many houses being built. All of a sudden, you had this huge demand for home furnishings. Many of the leaders of the industry had come back. It was a time that the generations were changing in the factories. Sons were moving into ownership. Not many daughters. A few. I'll touch on that, but not many. It was the times. But, a lot of change in management and some of those people were the people that I encountered in the '70s and that now are nearing their retirement. So, I worked through all that.
The Market was growing overwhelmingly. In 1955 the manufacturers decided they needed to have a cohesive group. They founded an organization called the Furniture Factories Marketing Association of the South. It was the major case goods people. It was after all those people who had invested the time, the money, the energy, and their reputations in founding this market in 1909, so they wanted to see it continue. They had a vested interest. They had a paternalistic interest. They were going to control it. It served the industry and served them very well. So that the focus never got diverted from exactly what the event was supposed to be, they used Chicago and others as examples of landlord driven markets. You're not on the same page when the landlord is driving the market. They were determined that they would coordinate this event. They'd set its dates. They'd make all of its rules and rent the space from the landlords, but the landlords wouldn't run this market. That's one of the major reasons this market is so successful. It is controlled by the manufacturers and not the landlords. Now in some instances, the manufacturers have become landlords, but that's all right.
So the Market is here because of the raw material. It's here because of the heritage of cabinet making in North Carolina. It's here because the northern and the southern entrepreneurs joined together to make it be here. It's here because they want it here. North Carolina today produces thirty-five percent of the furniture made in the United States. Virginia produces twenty-five percent. So in a radius of about two hundred miles, from High Point and Thomasville, you'll find sixty percent of the furniture that's made in the nation being made. Point of production has always been where the market has taken place. When Grand Rapids was the manufacturing furniture capital of the world, the market was in Grand Rapids. The same thing [occurred] in Jamestown, Chicago, and New York. But [in] those cities, as we increased our influence, their influence declined. As theirs declined, we moved into the leading position. Very early -- in the late '50s -- we were the dominant Market. Certainly by the early '70s, we were the largest home furnishings market in the world.