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Furniture Manufacturing Workers

History

Since the dawn of civilization, furniture has served as both artistic expression and functional object. The first furniture dates back to the Stone Age, a discovery reflected by the built-in benches and sleeping spaces that were found in a Neolithic house at Skara Brae, Orkney, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. Throughout the ages, carefully crafted pieces of furniture have been created of stone, bronze, and ivory, but wood has been a favorite material of furniture makers for thousands of years.

While woodworkers have practiced their craft since time immemorial, upholsterers didn't emerge until the Middle Ages. To cover the bare and drafty walls of stone castles, women of the day spent great amounts of time embroidering tapestries, which were then draped or "held up" on walls. "Holding up" tapestries soon became a specialized skill, and qualified "up holders" or "up holderers" were in great demand. In time, these professionals became known as upholsterers.

For centuries, furniture pieces of all kinds were crafted individually by hand. However, by the 17th and 18th centuries, furniture makers began working on separate operations in sequence in order to produce a single finished product. Even with this more efficient system, however, furniture items were created only at the request of buyers, and makers sold their pieces directly to those who ordered them.

With the advent of steam power, furniture manufacturing on a larger, mass-produced scale became possible. In 1848, cabinetmaker William Haldane opened the first furniture factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Other factories were soon established in that city, and artisans and designers from Europe were drawn there, bringing their ideas and expertise and adding to the quality of the furniture produced.

The creation of furniture factories resulted in more plentiful, less expensive pieces, which, in turn stimulated consumer interest. By the middle of the 19th century, furniture showrooms became popular, with items from various designers and manufacturers gathered together for display and sale to customers.

Today, modern furniture manufacturing is highly mechanized and geared to mass production. Although custom crafted pieces continue to be created, today's artisans often use a variety of power machines in combination with more traditional hand processes. Similarly, while top quality solid wood furniture is still an important product of the furniture industry, many manufacturers, faced with the depletion of timber supplies, are increasingly turning to other materials, including plastic and various metals.

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