Constructing Furniture City

This project combines traditional narrative history with mapping and statistics to examine how Grand Rapids, Michigan achieved industrial success during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Chicago and other major metropolitan areas dominated the Midwest, leaving small cities like Grand Rapids to forge their own path of urban development. Achieving fame by producing high-end furniture, Grand Rapids made capitalism local to survive the turbulence of industrialization and urbanization. The success of Grand Rapids as “Furniture City” reveals this alternate way to navigate industrial change. The city's decline during the Great Depression, however, underscores the fragile nature of relying on a niche economy.

Crafting a Reputation

Boosters touted the importance of Grand Rapids while avoiding unbelievable rhetoric. Combining quality of life and stability with the potential for economic dominance of a niche industry, they created a modest booster ethos. This modest boosterism was the way in which small cities could pursue stability and success in a period of chaotic growth.

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The Grand Rapids Brand

City leaders utilized the identity of "Furniture City" to build a nationally-recognized brand. The city's success brought challenges, however, as local business groups had to protect the Grand Rapids name. Legitimate companies and impostors alike recognized that the city's brand was a valuable commodity.

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An Industry in Decline

Even before the Great Depression, the high-end furniture industry was declining. What were once national events, Grand Rapids's furniture markets became increasingly regional during the 1920s. Though the post-World War II economy breathed some life into the industry, Furniture City had entered a new phase.

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Methodology and Data

Explore the methodology that I used in creating my visualizations and discover how to replicate them yourself. Additional graphics explain my editorial decisions and how I handled inconsistencies within data sets. Archival citations and other information about sources can also be found in this section.

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The Rise and Fall of the American Small City

This project is part of an ongoing dissertation project called The Rise and Fall of the American Small City that examines life in small cities during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.