Furniture manufacturing and sales contributed greatly to Chicago’s growth even in its early days. From the time of the railroad’s first connection to the city, lumber began to flow in and furniture began to flow out. And it was well designed and crafted furniture. Immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia—the world’s finest craftsmen—moved to the city and went quickly to work for Chicago furniture manufacturers. By the latter part of the nineteenth century many of these immigrants were becoming active in the growing labor movement. In fact, the furniture workers of German descent founded the first local labor union for American furniture workers. Chicago quickly grew to the forefront of unionization.
At the turn of the next century, there were more than one hundred furniture factories in the city. That doubled within ten years, putting people to work and building a healthy economy for what would become one of the largest cities in the country. Chicago furniture stores sprang up to sell the pieces created by all these workers and to service the growing populace. Many of those stores grew into large businesses that used the railroads and Great Lakes shipping companies to send their products all over the country. The city quickly became a national leader in the furniture industry, with the American Furniture Mart opening there in 1924. That market was instrumental in making the Midwest the largest producer of furniture in the nation.
But few things remain rosy forever, and the manufacture and sale of furniture in Chicago suffered like other industries when the Great Depression struck. Electrically-powered tools made furniture craftsmen almost obsolete as the factories that did survive could make do with fewer employees. Furniture manufacturers eventually made their way to other parts of the country where they could set up business with cheaper labor as well as take advantage of the developing overland trucking industry to distribute their goods.
But what goes around comes around. Today, more furniture stores in Chicago are beginning to acquire merchandise from local designers and manufacturers. Green and sustainable design has caught the attention of those who furnish homes and offices, leading to healthy growth in the area’s furniture industry once more. The internet allows local businesses to find the raw products needed to create unique designs as well as to market their furniture products around the world. Chicago’s future history and furniture are again in sync and going strong.
Yang Anderson is an independant writer of our furniture in Chicago series discussions.
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