Midwestern History, furniture, Grand Rapids, civic identity


Public History | United States History | Urban, Community and Regional Planning


In the later decades of the nineteenth century, prominent business figures in the city of Grand Rapids had reason to be both ambitious and optimistic. Striving to pull every last cent of profit out of available resources, they rationalized production workflows and integrated the latest technologies into their factories. They also perceptively discerned that a maturing railroad network connecting Grand Rapids to an emerging Victorian consumer economy would empower the city to achieve new levels of prosperity and fame through an industry on the verge of unprecedented growth: domestic furniture production.

These entrepreneurs acted upon their hopes for the community’s future through the establishment of the semi-annual Grand Rapids Furniture Expositions, beginning in December 1878. At first glance, these expositions might seem to have been a mere manifestation of the community’s recognition as America’s “Furniture City.” However, they actually constituted a fundamental cause behind the construction of this civic identity by local citizens: business leaders and supportive community members who collaborated in making the Grand Rapids name synonymous with excellent household furniture on an international scale. These citizens also resolved to prevent similar efforts in rival cities—including the powerhouses of New York and especially Chicago—from eclipsing their own. The astonishing extent of their success provided the city with a greater profile in the national consciousness and transformed the physical and economic landscape of Grand Rapids itself.

Given that Grand Rapids fits comfortably into Midwestern historian Timothy Mahoney’s description of small cities, this article also responds to his call for scholarly examinations of these urban spaces and their relationship to the broader regional and national economic forces that influence—and are influenced by—the fate of such cities. By arguing for the importance of the semi-annual furniture expositions to the development of Grand Rapids, this research sheds light on the place of a small Midwestern city in the growth of a national consumer culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Scott St. Louis serves as Program Manager in the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University. He graduated from GVSU summa cum laude in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and minors in political science and French. During his final semester as an undergraduate at GVSU, he was named a recipient of the Glenn A. Niemeyer Award, the university's highest academic honor for students and faculty. This project would not have been possible without the unfailing support of a generous and knowledgeable mentor: the author thanks Professor Matthew Daley of GVSU for his time, energy, and expertise. Thanks are also due to Julie Tabberer and the Grand Rapids Public Library Department of History and Special Collections, to Andrea Melvin and the Grand Rapids Public Museum Archives, and to Gleaves Whitney and the Hauenstein Center. Lastly, thanks are due to the anonymous reviewers of this article, and to those audience members—in Grand Rapids and elsewhere—who took great interest in this project and suggested helpful resources along the way.

Original Citation

Scott Richard St. Louis. "A “Self-Made Town”: Semi-Annual Furniture Expositions and the Development of Civic Identity in Grand Rapids, 1878–1965." Michigan Historical Review 44, no. 2 (2018): 37-65. doi:10.5342/michhistrevi.44.2.0037.