The furniture industry has a long history. From the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians through the Middle Ages, the craft of furniture making has evolved with technology. Where once furniture was necessarily crafted by hand, the twentieth century has seen technological advancements that allow all manner of furniture items to be automated and mass-produced. In the United States, the furniture industry began with the traditional methods of hand crafting. As the division of labor (task specialization) method was applied in the nineteenth century, furniture production began to increase, and the division between furniture manufacturing and sales developed.
Furniture sellers developed the practice of buying furniture at wholesale prices from manufacturers and selling them in showrooms, which gained popularity in the mid-1800s. Large stores kept their own workshops for specialty items. With the rapid development of retail trade the direct link between the customer and the furniture maker began to disappear. By the early 1900s mass production of furniture was well established in the United States, with principal manufacturing centers at Jamestown, New York; High Point, North Carolina; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Grand Rapids initially developed a reputation for high-quality, high-end living room and dining room furniture. In the 1920s the city became well known for inexpensive but reliable furniture. Due to the continued need for hand-crafted items, furniture factories never became very large, and usually employed about 100 people.
Before and after World War II (1939–1945) there was a shortage of wood products, and hard times hit the furniture industry. The industry recovered slowly in the 1950s with the introduction of new wood materials, woodworking machinery, adhesives, and wood finishes. It became increasingly difficult to discern whether a piece of furniture was made commercially or crafted by hand. Larger furniture factories were laid out with conveyor belts to enable the high-volume mass production needed to fill a constant supply of orders.
In attempts to generate more sales many manufacturers entered agreements with retailers to showcase their products. The concept proved successful as the manufacturer had access to a dedicated retail outlet, and the retailer received proprietary rights on the goods. A vendor-ship program was also created, allowing consumers to choose the furniture in a showroom and then having the manufacturer ship these items directly to their household; this allowed the showroom to carry less inventory. Wholesale distribution of furniture became divided into two categories: household/garden and office/business.
History has shown that interest rates and housing sales affect the furniture industry. When economic indicators are strong, the furniture industry has higher retail sales. Between 1992 and 1993 a five to six percent growth occurred in upholstered wood furniture, expanding the market for manufacturers. Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1987, listed 6,819 wholesale furniture distribution establishments with combined sales totaling $18.63 billion. By 1996 sales had increased to $28.78 billion with an estimated 7,194 establishments. Employment in the furniture industry increased from about 69,000 in 1992 to about 81,000 in 1996. By the late 1990s much of the industry growth came from sales to offices, hotels, and restaurants.
Agins, Teri. "Marketing—Home Furnishings." Wall Street Journal, November 22, 1993.
Andersen, Arthur and Co. Facing the Forces of Change 2000. Washington, D.C.: Research and Education Foundation, 1992.
Encyclopedia of American Industries. Farmington Hills: The Gale Group, 1998, s.v. "Furniture."
U.S. Department of Commerce. 1987 Census of Wholesale Trade: Geographic Area Series. Washington, DC: GPO, October 1989.
U.S. Industry Profiles. Farmington Hills: The Gale Group, 1995, s.v. "Furniture, Household."