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 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.
St. Louis, Scott, "A “Self-Made Town”: Semi-Annual Furniture Expositions and the Development of Civic Identity in Grand Rapids, 1878–1965" (2018). Peer Reviewed Articles. 22.