Furniture manufacturing was a key industry in Tacoma for nearly a century. By the late nineteenth century much of the Pierce County city's economy was built on the lumber industry. The availability of processed wood materials, tied with a growing regional demand for finished products and access to shipping by both rail and sea, led to Tacoma's development as a center for furniture manufacture. Through the decades many significant furniture factories came and went, for a time making Tacoma the largest furniture-manufacturing center west of the Mississippi River. However, by the late twentieth century, outsourcing, imports, and deindustrialization led to the decline of Tacoma's furniture-manufacturing industry. In recent years, a return to small-scale custom production by craftspeople echoes the industry's early days.
In the early years of American settlement in Washington, people procured furnishings in three main ways: They brought furniture with them, built it themselves, or ordered it from the eastern United States. By the late 1850s, woodworkers in the area operated small-scale businesses making furniture to order, but there was little in the way of manufacturing. One of the earliest manufacturers on Puget Sound was T. B. Speek, who established a chair-making business at Tumwater Falls near Olympia in the 1860s. While the factory was short lived, its simple dowel chairs were ubiquitous in Western Washington in the early days, and many still survive in museums.
Several factors led to Tacoma's eventual emergence as a furniture-manufacturing center. As more lumber mills began operating around Puget Sound, ancillary businesses such as planing mills sprang up, to refine raw wood products into marketable goods. The availability of planed lumber was a key development that made wooden furniture manufacture in the region possible. Finally, the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway at Commencement Bay in 1873 made New Tacoma (as the railroad called the town it built a short distance south of the existing small settlement of Tacoma) a hub of shipping activity for raw materials and manufactured goods.
To fend off land speculators, the Tacoma Land Company, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific, sold land only to those who intended to develop it and required buyers to submit their plans for approval. From the 1870s to the early 1900s the Tacoma Land Company steered industrial development to the area near its wharf, along Pacific Avenue from 15th Street southward, paralleling what later became the Thea Foss Waterway. A sawmill and foundry were among the first to locate in the area, as well as warehouses and wholesale businesses to distribute incoming goods.
The earliest furniture manufacturer in the Tacoma area was Gustave G. Bresemann (1845-1937), who immigrated from Prussia in 1869 and arrived in Pierce County by 1870 at age 25. A carpenter and woodworker by trade, Bresemann acquired the Byrd Sawmill at Steilacoom Lake in 1871. Bresemann, with partner August Burow (1837-1906), soon began making furniture, the first such factory in Pierce County. By 1876 Bresemann relocated to Spanaway Lake, building a new water-powered sawmill and continuing his furniture-making business. Bresemann Forest on the north shore of Spanaway Lake is named for him.
In Tacoma, David S. Lister Sr. (1821-1891) established a foundry in 1876 and added furniture manufacturing to his business soon after. By 1881 the growing furniture operation was run by Frederick Bauerle (1841-1926) in partnership with John A. Muller (1843-1926) and known as the Tacoma Furniture Factory. This factory changed hands in 1883, bought by James Chamberlain and Stuart Rice (1858-1938). Among the more refined pieces it produced was a roll-top desk. By 1885 the factory employed 40 workers.
After selling his first factory, Bauerle founded Bauerle and Klee with Joseph Klee (1845-1927) in 1888. In 1889 Gustave Bresemann sold his factory at Spanaway Lake and began a partnership with Klee, buying out Bauerle in a new factory at 25th and H streets in Tacoma. Bresemann managed operations until his retirement in 1902; the factory operated until at least 1906.
The story of furniture making in Tacoma is complex due to the shifting demands of markets and the overlap of skill sets and equipment with other industries such as residential millwork, cabinet making, boat building, and commercial-fixture manufacturing. As demand increased, businesses in these industries sometimes added furniture to their product lines and, just as quickly, ended production when demand waned. Because of this, there were many furniture manufacturers in Tacoma that lasted only a short time. But a number of larger companies endured for decades, some for more than a century.
Among the city's earliest large furniture concerns was F. S. Harmon and Company, organized by Fremont Smith Harmon (1856-1936) in 1882. Harmon arrived in Tacoma from Wisconsin in 1882 with experience in furniture sales. Initially he partnered with Alexander Parker (1826-1901) in Parker's existing retail business. Harmon bought Parker out after a fire destroyed their store in 1884. Afterward he transitioned to wholesale furniture supply. To keep up with demand F. S. Harmon and Company purchased the Tacoma Furniture Factory in 1889. Harmon became a leading mattress and furniture supplier throughout the Pacific Northwest, opening branches in Portland in 1904 and Seattle and Spokane in 1909. Also in 1909, construction of the Northern Pacific's new Union Station displaced Harmon's factory. He built a substantial new factory and warehouse across the street at 1938 Pacific Avenue, signaling the firm's importance in the city's and the region's economy.
Another new arrival was Joseph L. Carman (1861-1938), who came to Tacoma in 1889 from Des Moines, Iowa, specifically to found a mattress company. He purchased the recently organized L. S. Wood and Company and began the Pacific Lounge and Mattress Company in 1891 with partners L. S. Wood and Fred J. Kelly. It was the first mattress factory in Washington. By 1895 Carman built a new four-story plant at 25th Street and McKinley Avenue despite a nationwide economic downturn. In 1903 Pacific Lounge and Mattress became Carman Manufacturing, Inc.
Tacoma's furniture-manufacturing concerns went through a prolonged growth period prior to World War I. Among the new concerns were the West Coast Chair Company, established in 1904; the Northwest Chair Company, established 1914; and the Kronlund Furniture and Manufacturing Company, established in 1917. Kronlund became Restmore in 1928. Restmore is notable for its patented innerspring mattress design, which it later sold to Simmons Manufacturing Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
A recent arrival from New York, George W. Slyter (1862-1946), began the Washington Parlor Furniture Company in 1905. This concern grew rapidly enough to need larger quarters by 1909 when it built a new 75,000-square-foot plant on 11th Street. It produced mainly upholstered living-room furniture along with furnishings for lodges and churches.
One of Tacoma's largest furniture concerns began in 1916 when Edwin Gregory (1862-1937) organized Gregory Furniture Manufacturing Company. Gregory was born in New York and apprenticed as a cabinet maker. He opened his first shop in his home state but lost it to a fire and decided to begin again on the West Coast. In 1889 he arrived in Tacoma and opened Standard House Furniture, a retail business that operated until 1920. The Gregory factory at 2126 S Steele Street, adjacent to the Northern Pacific tracks, was originally built in 1908 for the Willamette Casket Company. By the 1920s Gregory's output was primarily walnut, oak, and mahogany dining- and living-room furnishings, with sales spanning the United States.
By the end of World War I, news articles declared Tacoma the leading manufacturer of furniture on the West Coast, out-producing larger cities including Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. By then, the industrial area had expanded, first to the east along 25th and 26th streets, and then southwest toward South Tacoma along the Northern Pacific right of way. In addition, dredging and filling in the Puyallup River estuary expanded the industrial area east of downtown. In each of these areas, furniture manufacturers intermingled with other wood-products industries, including barrel makers, architectural millworks, and cabinet manufacturers.
However, a postwar economic slump led to a contraction in the furniture market. Despite the downturn, there was enough demand for home furnishings to prompt some new entries into the field. In 1924 the long-established Buffelen Mill diversified into furniture manufacturing. Dutch immigrant John J. Buffelen (1864-1941) had arrived in Tacoma in 1901 and went into business making decorative porch columns for residential construction. In 1913 another mill came up for sale on Tacoma's tide flats; Buffelen purchased it and established the Buffelen Lumber and Manufacturing Company, producing doors, moldings, and decorative veneers before also moving into furniture making.
A major shift in the local industry was the restructuring of F. S. Harmon and Company in the late 1930s. As Fremont Harmon's health declined, his family decided to sell off the furniture-manufacturing arm of the business. It was purchased by Alan T. Crutcher (1884-1947) and Joseph H. Kitlar (1903-1988) who planned to expand its furniture-production division. In 1936 Harmon died, and Crutcher and Kitlar acquired the remainder of the company. For the moment its bread and butter remained mattresses made under franchise from Serta Sleeper Associates of Chicago. It employed 300 workers, making it the second-largest mattress manufacturer in the West. However, it quietly began its move toward expanding its output of home furnishings.
Homefront World War II
As the United States edged toward entry into World War II, Tacoma's proximity to major military facilities at Fort Lewis and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard positioned its industries to play a significant role in the war effort. In 1941, Tacoma's furniture manufacturers had a combined $1 million payroll with more than 1,200 workers in 20 different plants. After the U.S. entered the conflict at the end of that year, furniture factories in Tacoma supplied pieces for bases across the country, in Europe, and around the Pacific Rim.
Nationwide, the demographics of workers changed as draft-age white men left manufacturing jobs to join the military, women, minorities, and older workers filled the gap. One high-profile example was the Junior Line Furniture Company. Founded in Seattle in 1922, Junior Line made cribs, bassinets, and related items. In 1941 a major fire destroyed its factory, prompting the company's relocation to Tacoma when it was unable to find new quarters in Seattle. Production resumed in Junior Line's new location at 1017 East D Street with a nearly all-woman workforce of 25. By late 1942 owner-manager Clifford C. Collins (1903-1984) extolled the advantages of women workers, noting their eagerness to learn and listen and that they "never make the same mistake twice" ("Tacoma Plant Running ...").
Other Tacoma manufacturers took on defense contracts in addition to furniture making. F. S. Harmon added fabrication of aluminum seat frames for Boeing aircraft and metal bunk beds for the army. Buffelen also produced seats for Boeing. By 1943 the Northwest Chair Company, the largest chair manufacturer in the West, made wooden bodies for military supply trucks used in Europe and the Pacific. Like Junior Line, Northwest Chair also employed many women in all parts of production, including installing truck bodies. In an interview one manager said, "The man who says women are not naturally mechanically inclined is as out of date as a moustache cup" (Simmons, "First of Wooden Truck Bodies ..."). By 1944 Northwest Chair made 45 different wooden parts for use in Boeing B-17 and B-29 bombers.
"Grand Rapids of the West"
After the war, service men and women returned to an economy much improved since the 1930s. In 1945 local newspapers reported that the finished-wood-products trades in Tacoma, including furniture manufacturing, supported 1,880 workers. By 1946, 17 furniture factories turned out a diverse array of products made of wood, metal, and plastic. Tacoma's furniture manufacturers were optimistic that the new postwar affluence would translate into increased sales as families bought homes. Industry advocates attributed Tacoma's continued dominance of the region's furniture industry to its long history of abundant raw materials, ease of shipping, and inexpensive water and power utilities. By the late 1940s industry leaders called Tacoma "The Grand Rapids of the West," tying its image in the minds of investors to the Michigan city's famous late-nineteenth-century furniture boom.
Expansion of F. S. Harmon and Company's wood-furnishing division took a major step in late 1945 when Harmon purchased the Gregory Furniture Manufacturing plant. As Gregory's sales waned it downsized, relocating to new quarters at 3321 S Union Avenue and resuming production as the Gregory-Butler Furniture Manufacturing Company. Gregory-Butler's new building featured a modern production line and focused on smaller production runs of high-quality solid wood home furnishings.
Harmon's wood-products production relocated from its Pacific Avenue site to the former Gregory plant, allowing expansion of the mattress-manufacturing division at 1953 South C Street. By 1950 Harmon was the second-largest manufacturer in America and specialized in medium price-range bedroom suites and wood dining-room sets. To address changing tastes, it also added production of chrome and laminate dinettes under a franchise from the Virginia House brand.
Harmon also acquired a long-established local manufacturer, the Northwestern Woodenware Company, a producer of wooden butter tubs and shipping barrels in Tacoma since 1902. Competition from new paper and cardboard packaging made Northwestern Woodenware's original business obsolete. In 1945 new managers retooled its factory at 1933 Dock Street for production of unfinished fir furniture including benches, tables, light bookcases, and other items. Harmon bought the factory in 1948 to add a line of lower-priced products to its offerings.
From 1946 into the 1950s, Junior Line retained its majority-female workforce. As other companies pressured wartime hires to "make way" for family men, the press questioned manager Cliff Collins on his decision to continue employing women. Collins maintained women were preferential to men, stating, "For the most part we've found women to be steadier workers, more dependable, neater, and (of all things), less temperamental" ("Boss Likes Gals' Work") Collins also noted that some of his female hires supported spouses who were veterans with disabilities from their wartime service.
As business grew, production increased along with the number of products Junior Line offered, including high chairs, playpens, and changing dressers. In 1952 Junior Line added to its holdings a sawmill located in the Cascade foothills, to provide a committed supply of wood. At the height of its business in 1957, Junior Line employed 100 workers and produced 2,500 items per week.
Small-scale mattress manufacturer Restmore also benefitted from the postwar economic boom. By 1945 it too needed larger quarters and relocated to 1541 Market Street. While it only employed seven workers, its reputation for high-quality mattresses ensured a steady clientele.
Despite the strong economy, West Coast Chair at 702 E 26th Street suffered from management issues, outdated production processes, and changing tastes. By 1952 it faced closure, and local business leaders from other furniture manufacturers intervened to preserve the company. Through their help, West Coast Chair secured a contract with Tacoma Schools to supply 6,300 desks, saving 40 jobs. Meanwhile, local competitor Northwest Chair Company emerged from the war with a plan for the future. Its wartime contracts added molded plywood to its manufacturing capabilities, which it repurposed for civilian furniture products. Among the items produced at Northwest Chair were chairs for grade schools, dropleaf tables, and matched dinette sets. Veneered plywood was the material it used in new lines of modern living room furniture, and a steam wood bender, the only one on the West Coast, enabled the manufacture of designs in demand in the 1950s. By 1956 Northwest Chair products were available in more than 1,500 retail outlets.
George W. Slyter and Sons, formerly the Washington Parlor Furniture Company, also went through a postwar expansion, building a new facility at 3110 S Cedar Street. Its main output evolved into "occasional chairs" for use throughout the home. Slyter also expanded its sales range to the Midwest, producing 25,000 upholstered chairs with 60 employees in 1951.
New Entries in the Field
Joining the longstanding companies, new manufacturers entered the field in the 1940s and 1950s. New materials and production techniques spawned companies that put the skills of experienced furniture craftspeople to new purposes. For example, the advent of supermarkets in the 1940s and 1950s created demand for shelving and checkout stations. In 1945 William Sutherlan began Sutherlan Store Engineering and Fixture Company at 4540 S Adams Street. Using readily available plywood, laminate, and plastic finishes, Sutherlan produced fixtures for stores throughout the West, employing more than 140 workers by 1954.
Another manufacturer that followed a similar model was Educators Manufacturing Company, which began as a wholesale distributor in 1948. The nationwide increase in school-age children and rapid expansion in school construction created a demand for standardized modular fixtures for classrooms. In 1951 Educators acquired a small Tacoma startup called Furniture Arts Inc., formed in 1950 as a worker-owned cooperative and began producing plywood custom cabinetry for schools. By 1957 the company outgrew its factory at 725 East 25th Street and built a new manufacturing facility near the Port of Tacoma. The new plant opened in 1958 and expanded in 1962. By then, Educators supplied classroom fixtures throughout the country.
Tacoma's pioneer mattress manufacturer, Carman Manufacturing Company, also grew in the postwar era. Over the years Carman added other products to its line including early-American-style bedroom and dining-room furniture as well as china cabinets. Carman sold its furniture division to Furniture Arts in 1950, and then expanded its Spring Air mattress-production line, consolidating its Seattle and Tacoma operations.
Buffelen Furniture entered the postwar era making high-end furniture. Despite its woodworking origins, the Buffelen factory began outsourcing its frame construction to other manufacturers in town, dedicating its factory to turning out upholstered products. However, by 1955 sales were in steep decline due to changing tastes. When Buffelen's shareholders decided to sell out, its workers came together to buy the company and continue operation as a co-op. Over time Buffelen modified its product lines to become financially stable.
Among the more substantial firms that launched in this period was Hamilton Manufacturing Company, later National Church Furniture Company. Retired General W. B. Hamilton (1898-1995) agreed to head a committee to acquire new furnishings for his church. When he discovered there were few options for suppliers, he led an investment group that started its own and opened shop at 1515 South Tacoma Way. Early clients included Tacoma's Annie Wright Schools, county and federal courts, and Whitworth College.
In addition, a number of smaller startups also came into being in this era, to take advantage of the manufacturing boom. Blancher Kay was one such startup, manufacturing occasional tables for a time in the late 1940s. Far West Furniture Company began in 1946 as a co-op with seven employee co-owners building unfinished frames sold to other manufacturers. They also built commercial fixtures for restaurants including the Poodle Dog in Fife and the Olympus Hotel. Another firm, Durobilt Furniture and Upholstery Company, began in 1950 reconditioning old-fashioned "overstuffed" home furnishings. By 1960 it relocated to the former home of the Reliance Lumber company at 323 Puyallup Avenue.
Multiple factors led to a decline in Tacoma's furniture industry by the late twentieth century. The city's expanding role as a major import hub and the advent of containerized shipping at the Port of Tacoma in 1970 were part of America's larger shift toward outsourcing manufacturing overseas. As the flush economic times of the 1940s and 1950s transitioned toward economic recession and deindustrialization, the public's taste in furnishings reflected a desire to economize where possible. Inexpensive imports sold in chain retail outlets began replacing more durable furnishings that earlier consumers had purchased as family heirlooms to be passed down to descendants.
Rising energy and lumber prices also impacted Tacoma's furniture industry as they did other fields. Shipping costs climbed during the oil shortages of the 1970s and raw materials became increasingly scarce. Not only were old-growth forests becoming depleted from decades of cutting, new regulations protecting existing stands on public lands further limited local supplies of furniture-grade lumber.
Finally, greater acceptance by consumers of products made of other materials, such as steel, aluminum, engineered wood products (particle board), and plastics caused a decrease in demand for refined "classic" wood furniture. While some of Tacoma's manufacturers made forays into manufacturing using new materials, manufacturers outside the United States also had easy access to these materials, negating Tacoma's early advantage in access to resources.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s these forces led to downsizing, business closures, and consolidations, dissipating Tacoma's former leadership as a furniture-manufacturing center. The larger plants including Harmon and Carman downsized as demand fell. Harmon eventually refocused its production on custom office furniture. In the 1990s Carman moved its factory to Thurston County to reduce costs and focus on its most profitable lines. Others, such as National Church Furnishings, also moved away from Tacoma in pursuit of lower labor and land costs.
Junior Line's fate was typical of the trends toward consolidation and downsizing. By 1969 it was purchased by Los Angeles based Nathan Goldman Company and folded into that larger firm. Magnuson Furniture of Kent in south King County bought Slyter Chair, Inc., which continued until 1993 when it closed due to inability to compete with imports. Declining demand also prompted Buffelen to return to its roots as a custom door manufacturer. Educators Manufacturing became part of E. F. Hauserman Company of Cleveland, Ohio. By 1989 Hauserman was no longer in business.
While large-scale manufacturing waned, smaller firms filled the small ongoing demand for locally produced custom furniture, mirroring furniture production in Washington's early days. One example was Restmore Mattress, originally established in 1917. In 1977 Bob Sinclair, grandson of founder Ted Kronlund (1884-1956), purchased the struggling company and returned it to its roots, producing high-end custom mattresses. By 1997 its five employees produced only 3,000 units per year and reupholstering heirloom furniture accounted for 30 percent of business. Another firm, Custom Craft Fixtures, Inc., began in the 1950s producing medium-range products. Its transition to premium furniture for residences and commercial customers also helped it avoid competition from imports.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, furniture making in Tacoma was mainly done by smaller custom builders with few employees. To give a boost to these small concerns and other artisans, Spaceworks, an organization launched in 2010, began helping craftspeople occupy underutilized spaces in Tacoma. In 2015 Rick Semple and Jori Adkins loaned Spaceworks the former Durobilt factory at 323 Puyallup Avenue that they had renovated to house custom furniture makers. Tenants included RePly, making tables, stools, and boxes from salvaged plywood; Wane and Flitch, manufacturing woodslab tables and benches; and Birdloft, designing and fabricating custom wood and steel furniture.
Tacoma's years as a major furniture-manufacturing center supported thousands of family-wage jobs and contributed significantly to the city's economic development. The confluence of abundant raw materials and power, ease of shipping, and a community of skilled woodworkers enabled Tacoma's furniture industry to flourish. While large-scale production of furniture in Tacoma has all but vanished in recent decades, a legacy of fine-furniture making persists on a smaller scale. In addition, many of the substantial buildings that formerly housed Tacoma's furniture-making giants now serve as homes to a new generation of businesses and organizations. The former Harmon buildings on Pacific Avenue are now the center of the University of Washington's Tacoma campus. As these buildings find new purpose as centers of business and social life, they continue to remind us of Tacoma's deep roots as an important center of America's furniture industry.