On November 9, 1958, Educators Manufacturing Company opens a new state-of-the-art plant near the Port of Tacoma to much fanfare and community good wishes. Founded in 1951, Educators is an industry leader in supplying manufactured cabinets and other fixtures for modern schools and other institutions nationwide. Born out of Tacoma's well-established wood-products manufacturing industry, Educators' expansion will provide an important boost to Tacoma's economy, symbolizing the community's optimism in its future as a center of regional manufacturing.
Woodworking Manufacturing Roots
Almost from its founding, the city of Tacoma was a center for wood-products manufacturing. After the Northern Pacific Railway's transcontinental line reached the city in 1873, factories developed to take advantage of the plentiful lumber, inexpensive power, and multiple shipping avenues connecting Tacoma to national and international markets. By 1900, several large furniture manufacturers operated in Tacoma, including F.S. Harmon and Company, Carman Manufacturing Company, and the Tacoma Furniture Factory.
For the most part these factories developed along rail lines and spurs or close to waterways, for ease of shipping. The areas at the southern end of Pacific Avenue, along the Northern Pacific tracks between downtown and South Tacoma, and to the east of downtown along Puyallup Avenue, became Tacoma's early manufacturing centers, hosting numerous wood-products concerns including furniture makers, millwork factories, and cabinetmakers. The overlapping skill sets and equipment requirements allowed many companies to enter the furniture market when demand was high and stop production when demand fell, reverting back to their main products.
In the years preceding World War I, Tacoma's furniture industry added many new factories, producing everything from bedding and domestic furniture and cabinetry for commercial use, as well as metal-framed furniture, mass-produced wooden chairs, and other products. Among these, the Gregory Furniture Manufacturing Company, Northwest Chair Company, George W. Slyter and Sons joined Harmon and Carman as the leading furniture manufacturers in the area.
America's entry into World War II ended a slump in Tacoma's furniture manufacturing during the Great Depression. Tacoma's furniture factories took on contracts to produce parts and materials for the war effort, including wooden truck bodies, aluminum-framed aircraft seats, and plywood pieces for the Boeing Company's B-17 and B-29 bombers. During this time women, minorities, and older workers filled positions left vacant by male workers leaving to serve in the war effort. Factories also implemented innovative manufacturing processes and adopted the use of new materials including plywood. The wartime boost reinvigorated Tacoma's industries and set the stage for expansion in new directions.
Right Place, Right Time
At the end of the war, the United States entered a period of economic expansion. Across the country, an increase in manufacturing jobs led to low unemployment and better wages. In Tacoma's furniture industry, production accelerated to meet the demand created by new families buying houses and raising children. Longstanding concerns including F. S. Harmon and George Slyter and Sons expanded their production lines in new facilities. By the late 1940s, Tacoma's furniture industry supported a $4 million payroll for more than 2,000 workers.
In addition, spurred by the growth of urban areas and suburban neighborhoods across the country, the movement for school consolidation accelerated in this era. Politicians, administrators, teachers and communities saw building large modern schools as the best way to save money and standardize educational outcomes for the growing school age population, leading to a school-construction boom. In 1948, the Educators Furniture and Supply Company was founded in Sacramento, California, to provide schools with cabinetry and other fixtures they needed. In 1949, the company opened a branch sales office in Seattle and began looking for an opportunity to add a production site in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1950, the Carman Manufacturing Company in Tacoma decided to refocus its output on its profitable mattress lines and sold its wooden-furniture-making division. Employees formed a cooperative company called Furniture Arts Inc. to continue the work as their own bosses. Furniture Arts kept on manufacturing home furnishings until 1951, when Educators Furniture and Supply acquired Furniture Arts, forming Educators Manufacturing Company. Like its parent company, Educators Manufacturing focused on supplying cabinetry to schools.
From the outset, Educators took a scientific approach to developing products. It collaborated with Stanford University, funding a fellowship that engaged graduate students in a study of classrooms on the West Coast, surveying the needs for specialized workspaces and storage cabinets. From this, Educators developed a line of standardized cabinets, adaptable by architects to modern school design.
Throughout the 1950s, Educators increased its market share, expanding sales across the country. The firm's modern birch-paneled products, constructed of plywood and incorporating durable plastic and metal components, fit well with the modernist architecture of schools in the era. As demand increased, Educators quickly outgrew its production facility in the aging Carman factory.
In 1957 Educators Manufacturing Company broke ground on a new, state-of-the-art production facility at 3401 Lincoln Avenue, near the Port of Tacoma's marine terminals. The new building would make it possible to locate all phases of production on one floor, connected by conveyors to streamline the manufacturing process.
The grand-opening ceremony held on November 9, 1958, was a milestone event for Tacoma, symbolizing not only its ongoing dominance in the region's furniture-manufacturing industry but also the city's continued growth and economic vibrancy generally. Company officials, local dignitaries, and the public toured the facility while a crew from Seattle's KING television station filmed the proceedings and interviewed people for a documentary. The Tacoma Sunday Ledger -- News Tribune published a special 16-page insert titled "Success Story," lauding the plant and its many innovative features. It included articles and images describing the factory in glowing terms and featured best wishes from many companies involved in the facility's construction.
Innovations highlighted in the press coverage of Educators' new plant included a mechanized finishing machine and a durability-testing area. To ensure products could withstand long-term use, Educators used machines to simulate years of movement across floors, door and drawer openings and closings, and exposure to moisture and caustic chemicals.
While business increases into the early 1960s prompted Educators to add additional production and storage space, by the mid-1960s a slowdown in population growth and school construction posed challenges to the company's financial sustainability. Shrinking profit margins and sales losses prompted the use of outside consultants to identify inefficiencies and develop solutions in partnership with factory workers and administrators. Educators' roots as a worker-owned cooperative helped motivate staff to find collaborative solutions.
Despite stabilizing its operating budget, Educators' markets continue to decline. Pursuit of other applications for its products, including dormitories, hospitals, and commercial buildings, slowed the contraction but not enough. In this era, downsizing and mergers in the industry created larger, more diverse companies able to supply a wide array of products. In 1968 Educators' employee-shareholders approved a plan to merge with E. F. Hauserman Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Hauserman produced moveable panels and classroom dividers and had worked with Educators on classroom-research studies at Stanford University in the 1960s. Hauserman also acquired Gotham Educational Equipment Company of New York at this time, securing its position as one of the nation's largest school component suppliers.
Educators' attempts to remain viable in the 1970s led to its diversification into the low-cost residential furniture market. Using its manufacturing and design expertise, the company developed a line of modern plywood furniture, sold unassembled and designed to fit in smaller homes and apartments. To reassure wary buyers, Educators promoted it as easy-to-assemble, using only a screwdriver and with illustrated instructions included.
By 1981 Educators was no longer manufacturing school components. Another firm, Accurate Packaging Inc., purchased the 3401 Lincoln Avenue plant and Educators downsized to a smaller facility at 1671 Lincoln. Over subsequent years, Accurate Packaging and a series of other industrial businesses utilized the buildings at 3401 Lincoln Avenue.
In 1989, Hauserman closed, citing unprofitability due to competition. By the early 1990s, Educators' operations at 1671 Lincoln Avenue were succeeded by Danwood Designs, under the ownership of custom furniture builder Dan Devlin. For a few years small-scale operations continued, manufacturing modern plywood furniture for upscale commercial offices and residential use.
In 2015, planning for new development of the former Educators Manufacturing Company site got underway. The planned combination office and industrial park to be known as Portside 55 would require removal of the once-celebrated Educators plant at 3401 Lincoln Avenue. By early 2018 its demolition was slated for later that year. As the new replaced the old, Educators' earlier standing as a business of national importance made its factory dedication in 1958 a significant moment in local and regional history, a symbol of Tacoma's once-ascendant furniture-manufacturing industry.