The Grand Rapids Brand

Building the Brand

A strategy of modest boosterism secured Grand Rapids as the regional center of Western Michigan, but also allowed the city to develop influence within niche economies, most successfully in high-end furniture. Grand Rapids placed itself as the center of the furniture world by building quality products and holding semi-annual markets for furniture buyers, an important industry event. Many factors played small roles, but boosterism was the underlying cause for the markets' success. Because the city produced the “finest furniture manufactured in the United States” buyers flocked. The Grand Rapids Furniture Salesman’s Association stressed that, in addition to buyers, consumers knew that the city was the “center of the furniture world” and relied on the Grand Rapids name as it conveyed “the idea of good furniture.” The Grand Rapids brand was the foundation for the city's fame as Furniture City and success in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Bubble chart showing Grand Rapids trailing only New York and Chicago in terms of value of products created and capital despite being significantly smaller in population

As early as 1890, less than fifteen years after entering the national stage, Grand Rapids was keeping pace with furniture companies in much larger cities. Despite its smaller population, only New York, which had six times as many manufacturers and Chicago, which had nearly five times as many, outpaced the city in value of furniture produced and capital invested. Note in the visualizations how Grand Rapids companies compiled more capital than their amount of value produced would imply, suggesting that the city was still in the early stages of building up its successful furniture industry. Punching above its weight class from the very beginning, Grand Rapids quickly became the Furniture City.

Bubble chart showing Grand Rapids on the low end of the top furniture producing cities in terms of population and number of manufacturers, but still comparable in size of capital to Chicago and New York and larger in terms of capital than all the other cities.

For more information about these visualizations please see the Methodology section.

The Grand Rapids Furniture Salesman’s Association traced the city’s furniture roots to a “time when Indians were more plentiful than white men in Grand Rapids,” but noted the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as the moment Grand Rapids became “the furniture center of the world.” There, Grand Rapids company Berkey & Gay won an award for its display of a full bedroom set, though the $3,000 price tag greatly exceeded industry norms. After the exposition, buyers descended on the city looking for quality items. The markets began informally when a salesman from Connersville, Indiana informed his boss that by traveling to the city “he could meet more buyers than he could by traveling all over the country.” This history of the furniture industry in Grand Rapids represents the circular logic behind the Furniture City boosterism. The Grand Rapids brand stood for fine furniture because the city was the Furniture City. Grand Rapids was the Furniture City because of the fine furniture produced under the Grand Rapids brand.

Spirit of Craftsmanship

Boosters did not stop at the markets, however, in depicting the difference that came with the Grand Rapids name. They pointed to the “spirit of craftsmanship” and “pride and love of fine workmanship so apparent in the Grand Rapids factories” as the source of the quality found within Grand Rapids furniture. Though intimately knowing furniture was a “life-long study,” the uneducated consumer could trust Grand Rapids furniture because the tradition of quality permeated the city. The Grand Rapids name was a guarantee of satisfaction, one that would not be present if “buying of furniture of unknown make and reputation.”

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

As retailers across the nation began marketing themselves as Grand Rapids Furniture Companies, the Grand Rapids Board of Trade proudly recognized it as a sign of the city’s growing reputation in 1901. However, disingenuous retailers found opportunity in the Grand Rapids brand's quality to exploit customers. By 1912, Francis D. Campau, attorney for the Grand Rapids industry organization the Furniture Manufacturers Association, warned the board of directors about ongoing fraud and suggested ways “to check this evil.” Recognizing each situation may be different, he advocated a multifaceted approach, increasing Furniture Manufacturers Association advertising, taking legal action, and establishing a permanent committee and expense fund to deal with the issue.

A 1917 letter from Ralph Reid of Jarvis Auto Company in Grand Island, Nebraska highlights the problem with impostors. Reid wrote on behalf of his wife, who had purchased furniture from a Grand Rapids Furniture Company in New York, which told her that the items would be shipped January 1, 1917. In February, however, the order had still not been completed, and they were disappointed that what had arrived was warped or in a different style than ordered. Reid wanted to know when the rest of the pieces would arrive and threatened to return the furniture for a refund. Unluckily for Reid, when he heard back from the Grand Rapid Furniture Company they had to inform him that they had no records pertaining to him and he was likely dealing with a firm operating under their name.

Unfair to the Legitimate Dealer, and Especially to the Stores Carrying Grand Rapids Furniture

Groups like the American Fair Trade League could rectify minor offenses. They quickly reimbursed a customer who bought furniture that a salesman misrepresented as being from the Grand Rapids flagship copmany Berkey & Gay. The offending store also apologized to Berkey & Gay, through the American Fair Trade League, and fired the rogue salesman. Beyond the Furniture Manufacturers Association, legitimate furniture dealers were also interested in protecting the Grand Rapids Brand. N. C. Garrett, the assistant manager of the Summerfield Company, a home furnishing company in Providence, Rhode Island, sent two letters to the Furniture Manufacturers Association in the summer and fall of 1920, forwarding advertisements from local companies. Inquiring about their authenticity, he explained that imitation stores were also “unfair to the legitimate dealer, and especially to the stores carrying Grand Rapids furniture.” The number of Grand Rapids Furniture Companies “scattered throughout the country” was a trend that companies in the Furniture City found to be concerning.

Beginning in 1915, the Furniture Manufacturers Association launched a strategic effort to protect the Grand Rapids brand, sending undercover shoppers to investigate retailers in Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Because manufacturers from all over the country came to Grand Rapids for the city’s furniture markets, many retailers could claim their products were “bought in Grand Rapids.” Looking to avoid granting retailers any excuses, the mystery shoppers made it clear they wanted furniture built in the city, telling the salesperson a story about wanting to give a former resident of a piece of furniture made in the city “for sentimental reasons.” The Furniture Manufacturers Association discovered several instances of fraud, including companies with names that indicated they were from Grand Rapids, newspaper and storefront advertising that claimed they had Grand Rapids furniture to sell, and indirect claims that allowed the company to misleadingly slip the Grand Rapids name into the representations of their products. Over the next six years, the Furniture Manufacturers Association brought cases against companies in Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island, earning favorable settlements, though all came before the conclusion of a trial, meaning there was no clear legal precedent established.

Fortunately for the Furniture Manufacturers Association, the Federal Trade Commission was beginning to crackdown on the misleading use of geographic names. In the early 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission was looking into a situation similar to that of the Grand Rapids furniture companies involving the name “Rochester” in the textile industry. In the Rochester cases, the Federal Trade Commission investigated claims that companies making men’s clothing using the “Rochester” name even though companies made the clothes elsewhere. At issue was the reputation of quality of clothing “produced in Rochester and under Rochester manufacturing conditions,” a reputation that the city’s chamber of commerce and other booster groups helped build. In the majority of cases, the Federal Trade Commission issued cease and desist orders barring the use of the Rochester name, unless the company also qualified it with a “Made in” note appearing along side it. Like Grand Rapids, Rochester’s reputation relied on the quality of it “high grade tailored Rochester art clothes” and not the quantity of suits produced. On the heels of the Rochester cases, the Federal Trade Commission turned its attention to the furniture industry. Highlighting the cases involving companies that invoked the Grand Rapids name in a misleading manner, The Federal Trade Commission chose 18 cases in 1925 as a representative sample of misleading advertising. The Furniture Manufacturers Association won the legal backing it had fervently desired as the Federal Trade Commission began handing down cease and desist letters in order to protect the brand so vital to the Grand Rapids's economic well-being.

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