The Furniture Makers of Cincinnati 1790 to 1849

While shopping around a couple of antique stores in Lebanon, OH this weekend, I ran across this book placed on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in the back corner of the store. The book was “The Furniture Makers of Cincinnati 1790 to 1849” and it intrigued me since it was something that I was looking for a while. I have always known that back in the earlier 1800’s Cincinnati was the epicenter of the furniture industry, but I knew very little about any of the makers or furniture from that time.

The writer of the book Jane E. Sikes, who I can only imagine was Richard Gere’s mom, was a native Cincinnatian who held degrees from Bennett College and the University of Cincinnati. She researched and documented hundreds of cabinet makers, chair makers and turners during the earlier part of the 19th century and included their name, location, and year or years in which they operated in alphabetical order. She also wrote about the furniture industry in Cincinnati and the artisans who helped carve its future. If you’re from Cincinnati and would like to read the book yourself, you can buy a used copy on Amazon.

During the earlier 1800’s, Cincinnati was the fifth largest city in the US and the largest in the West. Steamboats carried goods from the East and to New Orleans. Being a major port for travelers on the their way out west, Cincinnati flourished economically and by 1815, Cincinnati was exporting chairs and furniture out west, selling to the steamboat trade. Because of the expanding growth and the lush local forests, artisans from all over the world came to Cincinnati to help build the furniture that was in such heavy demand.

The book has a few pages of color plates showing furniture made in Cincinnati which is what I was really after.  Being a furniture maker from Cincinnati, I’d like to pay homage to the furniture makers before me by incorporating some of their shared styles into my own designs. Anytime I watch the Antiques Roadshow on PBS, I hear the Keno brothers talk about the Philadelphia style or New York style of furniture, but never hear them speak of a Cincinnati style of furniture. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any singular design that stands out as a Cincinnatian form as Sikes wrote, “It is difficult to attribute particular characteristics to Ohio furniture in general and Cincinnati in particular. However, there are certain pieces which have descended lineally in certain families and we know that these shapes are definitely the kind of furniture made here in 1820 and 1830.” However, she doesn’t go into detail what those shapes or pieces were.

As far as the furniture industry in Cincinnati is concerned, unfortunately, the Great Flood of 1832 wiped out a lot of the furniture makers who worked and lived downtown. The river was so high that year that it was reported by William Henry Harrison that steamboats were travelling down city streets. Seven of the major chair makers were decimated as all of their tools and paint were washed away down stream. After the flood in 1834, the sudden outbreak of Asian Cholera only added to their woes when as many as 100 people died a day from the illness. Steamboats weary of traveling to Cincinnati in fears of spreading the disease bypassed the city thwarting once again the chair makers who depended on the steamboat trade. Most of them closed up shop and went onto other trades.

While examining the pictures, I think there are some similarities in the curves of the pieces that I can incorporate in my own designs in the future. Since I have lived in Cincinnati for nearly thirty years, it only makes sense to continue the proud history of furniture makers who came before me.

Page 20 has a picture of the Book of Prices of the United Society of Journeymen Cabinet Makers of Cincinnati for the Manufacture of Cabinet Ware in 1836. Books like these were legal contracts for helping unionize furniture making. Whether or not they were adhered to is anyones guess.

One of the neatest furniture makers Sikes researched was an African-American man named Henry Boyd who was born into slavery in Kentucky on May 14, 1802 and then bought his freedom at the age of eighteen. He set up shop in Cincinnati and sold his furniture to people all over the South and Southwest. He began working in 1830 and by 1850 he employed 20 cabinet makers making beds for hotels. Some of his furniture can still be seen today at the Golden Lamb Inn, the oldest hotel and restaurant in Ohio in the city of Lebanon, just two doors down from where I bought the book. I have never eaten at the Golden Lamb but I’ve heard good things about the place. Looks like I’ll have to take my wife there soon and check out some of his furniture if possible. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote an article about Henry Boyd a few years back.

Somebody who owned the book before me was doing some research as there were still a couple of hand written notes tucked inside. This is definitely a great book that I will own for a long time. Maybe I’ll add my own notes to the book someday doing research on some Cincinnati furniture makers.