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Documenting the Victorian and Edwardian furniture trade

Published by on 6 May 2021

The latest BIFMO initiative is to extend the dates of our biographical accounts through the Victorian period to the start of the Great War. Britain was the pre-eminent manufacturing nation by the middle of the nineteenth century – literally the workshop of the world – and the furniture industry was a major player. 

A range of documentary sources have been selected which include archival and published material: ancestral information; two contemporary trade directories: the London Post Office and Kelly’s Directories (1845 & 1871); journal articles published in Furniture History; The Journal of The Regional Furniture Society, Journal of the Decorative Arts Society, the Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies; and two periodicals: Apollo and The Burlington.

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frontice
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The Furniture Gazette

Frontispiece of The Furniture Gazette, Saturday January 12, 1884, Vol. XXI, p.1

We have also carried out an indepth review of The Furniture Gazette and its associated publications, which are filled with biographical information about the owners and staff working in the tens of thousands of late-nineteenth century firms across the British Isles. It would be impossible to record each and every person who worked in the industry at this period, but this effort alone has resulted in over 10,000 biographies currently being written and rolled out on BIFMO.

The Furniture Gazette is an illustrated trade journal ‘of all branches of cabinet-work, upholstery and interior decoration’. Published in the late nineteenth century (1873-1892), and thereafter amalgamated with Furniture and Decoration, it includes fascinating information about various aspects of the trade in major cities and provincial regions across England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

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FG
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The Furniture Gazette

       Front page of The Furniture Gazette, 1 May 1886, Vol. XXIV, p. 145

This includes news and comments, company advertisements; commentary and editorials; legal notices of bills of sale (i.e., securities); the formation and dissolution of partnerships and companies; liquidations and bankruptcies; notices for job opportunities; and announcements of ‘novelties and new inventions’ in manufacturing techniques and time-saving machinery.

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Saw
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The Furniture Gazette

Advertisement in The Furniture Gazette for New Foot-Power Saws, April 1 1886, Vol. XXIV, p. xvi

Major feature articles were published - often over several issues - on domestic and international exhibitions, and smaller ones organised by design and guild schools and societies, such as The Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society.  

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Ticket
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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Printed season ticket, Walter Crane, 1890 [museum no. E. 4164-1915]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Editorials in The Furniture Gazette were pragmatic, offering praise or criticism on design and manufacture, these often illustrated with black & white or tinted images of furniture, design, detail, and patented components. The introduction and expansion of machinery is detailed, as were descriptions of factories and shop displays, with observations and analysis of working environments, legislation relating to the labour force, and the many social events which the most benevolent employers gave to their staff.  Nearly half of volumes are available to view online (free of charge) through the Haithi Trust Digital Library.

In addition to information taken from contemporary nineteenth-century sources and journals, BIFMO has been the fortunate recipient of information from several descendants of British furniture makers who have generously opened their family archives to share their personal histories. This includes two large furniture-making businesses, Jackson & Graham and Robert Garnett & SonsWe have also received details of small family-run businesses, like one operated by the chair maker, James Crofts. This unique information is priceless and the BIFMO project is most grateful.

Jackson & Graham was one of the elite furniture-making firms that played a role in raising the reputation of Victorian London furniture makers in Europe and beyond, by using a series of International Exhibitions to cement and expand their reputation, beginning with the London Exhibition of 1851.

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Jackson & Graham
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Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 1854)

Jackson & Graham display at the 1851 London Exhibition. From Dickinson Bros., Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London, 1854).

Amongst their workforce was the designer and artisan, Thomas Jacob, who until now has been unknown. Jacob’s first mention was in the 1 July 1876 edition of The Furniture Gazette, when he was listed as an ‘Art Furniture Manufacturer’ working in Kentish Town, north London: https://bifmo.history.ac.uk/entry/jacob-t-1871-1901

Several biographies documented through family archives tell the success and unfortunate demise of nineteenth-century furniture makers and their hard-won businesses, sadly an all-too-common occurrence. For example, the story of Benjamin Brew, who was a partner in the firm Brew & Claris and James Child & Co.

Some furniture-making firms recorded in BIFMO continued to operate into the twentieth century and in these instances we have broadened the date range to accommodate the details, as seen for example with France & Banting.

BIFMO has commissioned several historians to write biographies about furniture makers at the period. Our thanks go to:

With generous funding from the Marc Fitch Fund, we have recently documented London furniture makers and associated trades in north Soho (now called Fitzrovia) and the western borders of Bloomsbury, over the period, 1870-1914. This area of London drew our attention because of the department stores and furniture retailers established in Tottenham Court Road, including the well-known firms, Maples & Co., Shoolbred & Co., and Heal & Son.

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letterhead
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© The Trustees of the British Museum

F. Heal & Son letterhead, 1840 [Heal Collection, 61.10]© The Trustees of the British Museum

We were curious to know whether these department stores made their furniture in house, if they had workshops in the neighbourhood, or perhaps subcontracted it to local tradespeople. The answer is a combination of all three. Our survey has documented twenty-four different furniture trades concentrated in the area, constituting over 2000 furniture-making businesses. This data is being used to inform biographical accounts of late nineteenth and early twentieth century London furniture makers and will also be used to document several case studies for future BIFMO biographies and blogs.

Please keep an eye on BIFMO to read our new and forthcoming historical accounts. Do get in touch with any questions or comments, please click here

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FG
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The Furniture Gazette