Furniture has been an important product of North Carolina artisans and manufacturers since the early colonial era. The massive success of the industry in the state led to North Carolina's acquiring the nickname "Furniture Capital of the World" during the 1980s, when the state produced approximately one-half of the furniture sold in the United States. While furniture remained a key segment of North Carolina's economy in the early years of the twenty-first century, with more than 600 furniture manufacturers in the state producing in excess of $6 billion in furniture and furnishings and employing nearly 70,000 people, economic and international trade changes in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in a significant downsizing of the industry.

Furniture as Product and Craft from the Colonial Era to the Civil War

Settlers in colonial North Carolina furnished their dwellings with durable, functional objects that were often self-manufactured or had been brought with them from their previous home. The eastern settlements received a substantial portion of their furniture through the coastal trade from New England, the British Isles, and Europe. Artisans were attracted to the colony as the population increased and could support their work. Most of these cabinetmakers, silversmiths, painters, potters, weavers, and the like were of English ancestry, often immigrating from neighboring colonies, who brought with them knowledge of their respective crafts based on English design. They settled in the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont backcountry, and the Mountains, together with German, Highland Scot, Scotch-Irish, and African immigrants. Each ethnic group made unique contributions to the development of certain furniture design styles that can readily be identified as having originated in North Carolina.

Most of the early furniture was made of woods native to the North Carolina landscape, such as walnut, cherry, cypress, oak, yellow pine, and poplar. Mahogany was popular but had to be imported. Furniture and furnishings in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were primarily functional. The conservative, simple furniture made by the Moravians and Quakers in the North Carolina Piedmont reflected a utilitarian approach to life on the frontier. The coastal regions were the first to develop and support an artisan class, which grew slowly at first. Most first-generation North Carolinians preferred to accumulate land, agricultural equipment, and slaves rather than tangible personal possessions. Early inventories reveal more detailed descriptions of farming equipment than household goods.

North Carolinians generally sought to emulate their British counterparts in the decoration of their furniture and homes. Cabinetmakers and silversmiths produced wares that imitated the neat and plain styles of the English that many people favored. Trade with England brought a variety of consumer goods into the colony as well as style books and fashionable designs. Furniture took on more decorative and artistic qualities as other specialized forms were being produced to provide for the social customs of the day. Special tables, cupboards, and cabinets for the display and serving of tea wares, along with silver flatware and imported china, were found in the homes of the upper and middle classes.

Furniture in nineteenth-century North Carolina did not experience noticeable change until the effects of the Industrial Revolution spread into the state. Britain and France continued to establish decorative trends for furniture and home furnishings, which were then adapted to suit American and southern tastes. Popular design styles for furnishings included late Empire, American Restoration, Rococo Revival, Elizabethan Revival or Cottage Style, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival, Eastlake, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and Colonial Revival. Economic class and geography determined the amount and quality of furniture available. Rural North Carolinians continued to purchase locally made objects that were largely utilitarian. They did make and incorporate decorative objects whenever possible using information gathered from local, regional, and national sources.

A substantial North Carolina furniture industry existed before the Civil War. One of the state's most successful furniture operations was owned by Thomas Day, a free black who had moved to Caswell County from southern Virginia in the 1820s. Day became renowned for his finely crafted furniture and other home embellishments, such as mantelpieces and stair railings. In the 1850s, Day invested in steam equipment and woodworking machinery, making him one of the first furniture makers to do so. His business thrived until about 1860, when it succumbed to the economic instability and recession that marked the era. Several of Day's pieces survive under private ownership or in museums.

Furniture Production in the Industrial Age

The 1860 industrial census lists 5 of the 37 cabinet shops in the state as using steam equipment to power operations. The ensuing Civil War and its aftermath effectively put an end to most such enterprises. However, by the late nineteenth century the furniture industry in North Carolina had regained much of its earlier momentum. Piedmont North Carolina was well suited for industrial development at this time. Improved railway transportation in the area, along with large stands of hardwood forests, attracted developers. William H. Snow, a native of Montpelier, Vt., had moved to Greensboro shortly after the war and established a spoke and handle factory with the financial backing of friends. In 1871 he moved to High Point, where he founded a factory that produced shuttle blocks and bobbins from native hardwoods for the northeastern textile mills. His son, Ernest A. Snow, started the Snow Lumber Company in 1881. That year, David A. and William E. White founded a plant in Mebane to produce spindles for the textile industry. The White brothers quickly turned to the manufacturing of furniture. Subsequently, Ernest Snow joined forces with John H. Tate, Thomas F. Wrenn, and M. J. Wrenn to form the High Point Furniture Manufacturing Company in 1889. In 1887 the Goldsboro Furniture Manufacturing Company was chartered in Goldsboro. Soon these and other small factories were producing inexpensive lines of wooden household furniture for a demanding southern market.

The founders of many of the state's first furniture factories sold their interests and started new enterprises with others who had available capital. The early furniture industry was driven primarily by individuals from the business and professional community who pooled together money to erect buildings and install machinery. They hired experienced superintendents (who often had worked in northern furniture factories) to choose and train local workers to operate the facilities. The agricultural depression of the 1890s forced many farm workers out of the country and into developing towns, and North Carolina's early furniture factories took advantage of this relatively inexpensive, unskilled labor force.

By 1900 there were 44 furniture factories in High Point and the surrounding towns of Thomasville, Lexington, Salem, Marion, Mount Airy, Statesville, Hickory, and Greensboro. The central location of the Piedmont made High Point a natural shipping point for southern markets that desired inexpensive, well-made furniture. The industry was also given a boost when several national mail-order companies, including Sears, Roebuck & Co., purchased large lots of North Carolina furniture to market nationwide through their catalogs. Other allied manufacturers set up factories in High Point to provide veneers, plate glass, mirrors, paint, and locks to the furniture companies.

The first decade of the twentieth century was marked by large profits for many North Carolina furniture producers, although by 1910 such prosperity had become more elusive. An increase in the number of factories meant fierce competition for a share in the market and the hiring of competent, experienced workers. Factory operators faced rising labor costs as well as higher costs related to shipping. There were numerous bankruptcies resulting from inexperienced managers who either sold their products well below the cost of production or expanded operations far too quickly. Some companies merged to avoid bankruptcy and actually strengthened their positions. The Standard Chair Company of Thomasville was formed in 1906 from the Lambeth Chair Company, the Cates Chair Company, the Standard Chair Company, and the Thompson Chair Company. It became one of the largest chair-producing firms in the South.

Many manufacturers realized that they could no longer approach furniture making with the simple formula of money, material, and manpower. Several companies began to focus on improving quality and production practices. The White Furniture Company in Mebane developed a solid reputation for quality furniture production. In 1913 it also became the first furniture plant in the South to use electricity to power its machinery. Company officials hired an "efficiency engineer" in 1916 to analyze the factory operations and make recommendations to improve the production process. The Tomlinson Chair Company of High Point was one of the first companies to manufacture quality period reproduction dining and living room suites on a large scale. The company also took an innovative approach in the treatment of its workforce by giving them the opportunity to share in the company profits. Any employee who exceeded their monthly quota would receive a percentage of the profit. In addition to this, Tomlinson provided group life insurance to its workers.

Birth and Development of the Modern Furniture Industry

By 1939 North Carolina was the national leader in total production of wood household furniture. Marketing techniques were an important factor in the phenomenal rise of the North Carolina furniture industry throughout the twentieth century. The American furniture industry created a unique marketing system in which larger cities such as New York and Chicago became national exhibition sites where manufacturers displayed their products and took orders. Furniture dealers and buyers visited these halls at least twice a year, viewing a variety of lines from across the country. North Carolina manufacturers brought the concept home to High Point and eventually created the largest marketing center for home furnishings in the world. On 20 June 1921 the Southern Furniture Exposition, Inc., opened a ten-story building in High Point, complete with 249,600 square feet of exhibition space. Over two weeks, 700 dealers viewed 149 exhibits, and sales came close to $2.25 million. The exposition was held twice a year with increasing numbers and strengthened North Carolina's stature as a national leader in furniture production.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, North Carolina continued to lead the nation in production of both upholstered and wooden household furniture. A large number of manufacturers provided relatively stylish and inexpensive furniture for all economic classes. Although many furnishings lost their unique regional quality as North Carolinians became part of a national marketplace, a number of local artisans continued to produce unique, high-quality products.

The 1980s marked the "golden era" of the North Carolina furniture industry, when employment peaked at 90,000 people and the state added nearly 200 new furniture companies to its ranks. However, the boom did not continue. Trouble began in the 1990s with the globalization of the industry and an increase in free trade, resulting in competition from foreign furniture corporations and necessary cost-cutting measures from U.S. firms. The outsourcing of production services to Latin American and Asian countries led to a large decrease in furniture production and employment in North Carolina. China became the North Carolina furniture industry's most effective competitor, producing furniture of equal quality that was available to consumers at a lower price.

North Carolina saw the closing of 47 furniture companies during the 1990s, and the negative trend continued after 2000 with dozens of additional company closings. By 2006 it remained unclear how far the industry would fall before stability was reached, although some believed North Carolina's increasing affluence and urbanization would eventually reverse the economic hardships the industry had experienced.

North Carolina's Largest-Grossing Furniture Companies (2004)

Company Location Total Sales (millions) No. of Employees
Universal Furniture, Ltd. High Point $670 12,000
Klaussner Corporation Asheboro $621.5 6,064
Thomasville Furniture Industries Thomasville $362.8 6,500
Broyhill Furniture Industries, Inc. Lenoir $334.9 6,000
Lexington Furniture Industries Lenoir $167.3 3,000
Bernhardt Industries, Inc. Lexington $122.7 2,200
cv Industries, Inc. Lenoir $117.1 2,100
Sherrill Furniture Company Hickory $105.1 1,650
Carolina Mills, Inc. Hickory $96.8 1,500
Henredon Furniture Industries Maiden $94.7 1,700
Drexel Heritage Furniture Industries Morganton $89.2 1,600
Kincaid Furniture Company, Inc. Hudson $79.5 1,250
Fairfield Chair Company Lenoir $75 700
Cochrane Furniture Company Lincolnton $75 600
Clayton Marcus Company, Inc. Hickory $49.1 775

References: John Bivins, The Furniture of Coastal North Carolina, 1700-1820 (1987); John Bivins and Forsyth Alexander, The Regional Arts of the Early South: A Sampling from the Collection of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (1991); Elizabeth Stillinger, The Antiques Guide to Decorative Arts in America, 1600-1875 (1972); Alexander R. Stoesen, Guilford County: A Brief History (1993).

Patricia Phillips Marshall

Additional research provided by Michael H. Lewis.

See also Broyhill Furniture; Drexel Furniture Company; International Home Furnishings Market; White Furniture Company.


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