Furniture Making In America: History of High Point

Retrospect

If you read design blogs, then you might be aware of the High Point Market, a biannual home furnishings trade show held in High Point, North Carolina. Of all trade shows and furniture industry events, High Point is one of the most beloved and respected. Here's the history behind North Carolina's furniture industry and the rise of this iconic event.North Carolina was, of course, one of the 13 original American colonies. In Northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Boston and Baltimore, some early furniture makers expanded production to a proto-industrial scale. But not in North Carolina, where production and distribution remained local and modest. People imported their furniture from the North, made their own, or patronized local craftsmen (mostly immigrants from England, Scotland and Germany) who kept their operations at the smallest scale.
In the mid-19th century, the centers of American furniture production were moving away from the Northeast, to Midwestern centers like Cincinnati and Chicago, and particularly Grand Rapids, Michigan. These makers used industrial methods to increase production capacity, and they began using illustrated catalogs in an attempt to expand their market across state lines. In 1866, there was an informal furniture market in Cincinnati, where the public could see the latest styles and place orders, and Grand Rapids and Chicago soon held their own expositions, too.
Pin it button
The residence and workshop of Thomas Day, one of the most successful antebellum furniture makers in North Carolina. Day happened to be a free black man, and was one of the first Southerners to adopt industrial methods before his business folded in the buildup to the Civil War
By the second quarter of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began to affect Southern furniture production, though it wouldn't really revolutionize the industry until after the Civil War, because, in addition to the other destructive effects it had, the slave-based agricultural economy of the antebellum South also impeded the implementation of industrial infrastructure and the expansion into other economic sectors.
With the end of the war and of slavery, a furniture industry began to develop in North Carolina, with businesses opening first in Thomasville (now known as "Chair Town") and its neighbor, High Point. Still, by 1880, North Carolina ranked 36th in furniture production out of the 39 states, producing less than $75,000 worth of goods out of the national production of $77.5 million.
Pin it button
The Globe Home Furniture Company's factory, established in 1901, was soon the 3rd largest furniture producer in the South. (Good for furniture making = not so good for global warming!)
But that would soon change, thanks to both abundant supplies of local hardwood and lots of cheap labor due to Reconstruction and the changing economic landscape of the South. Between 1890 and 1900, 38 new furniture factories opened in North Carolina, including 13 in High Point, which was the leading furniture center in the South by 1900. The Southern Railroad line was formed in 1894, and was soon expanded to connect to furniture towns like High Point, which was shipping out eight full freight cars of furniture per day in 1898. By 1910, North Carolina boasted more than 250 furniture manufacturing companies and produced $8.5 million of goods, double any other Southern state.
Pin it button
The Southern Railroad's station stop in High Point helped the furniture industry expand and flourish, since it made for easy transportation of raw materials (in) and finished goods (out)
In the first decade of the new century, several furniture manufacturers in and around High Point began to plan expositions to display and sell their wares to the public. In 1909, the Southern Furniture Market was held twice in High Point, with modest but growing attendance, marking the official origin of the High Point Market.
Pin it button
A 1925 view of the Southern Furniture Exhibition Building in High Point
In 1921, the brand-new, million-dollar, 249,000-s.f. Southern Furniture Exhibition Building opened in High Point. Seven hundred buyers attended the first show and generated $2.25 million in sales. The expositions were soon known as the High Point Market, as they are today.
Though hit hard by the Depression, the Southern furniture market benefitted from its relative youth compared with Grand Rapids and the Northeast. Focused on affordable furnishings and trendy styles instead of more luxurious, traditional wares, the Southern furniture market was able to rebound by 1935, and by 1937, North Carolina was ranked 2nd in US furniture production, behind New York.
The High Point Market had become an important bellwether of furniture trends and an economic indicator. In 1947, its first exhibit post-World War II yielded $5 billion in sales, a clear sign of the postwar boom time that was to come (hello, Mid-Century Modernism!).
Pin it button
A 1975 brochure for the market suggests that the demographics of the event might have changed somewhat in the last few decades
Over the subsequent decades, the market continued to expand and to gain status, with the April and October 'midseason' shows taking precedence among all the industry exhibitions. It now draws more than 80,000 guests.
Have you ever been to High Point?

Images: 1 Home Accents Today 2 Wikipedia 3 Family Old Photos 4 epodunk 5 & 6 High Point Museum
Sources:
  • The American Furniture Hall of Fame has a comprehensive timeline of American furniture manufacturing
  • The High Point website has a more detailed history of the event itself
  • I also really loved this blog post by a furniture rep and High Point local, describing the impact of the market on her town
  • 7 Comments