Here in Cincinnati, we are the source of the problem. But we might also be part of the solution.
With Woodworking in America looming next month here in greater Cincinnati, I’ve been thinking a lot about this city’s long and mixed history in the woodworking trade. It’s a history that is ignored or unknown to many of its citizens, and yet what happened here in Queen City had repercussions (good and bad) all over the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
If you are coming to Cincinnati in November for Woodworking in America, you’ll likely drive over or see many of these important places and not even know it. There are no plaques or walking tours for these places. And yet, I’ll sometimes stand on 4th Street downtown a bit impressed when I think about what happened there.
During the next few weeks leading up to Woodworking in America, I’ll be providing snapshots of a few of these important places. But first, a list of the sins and virtues (as I see them) of the greater Cincinnati area.
The China of the 19th Century: Cincinnati was one of the first Midwest cities to fully embrace steam-powered machinery in about 1844. As a result, according to Donald C. Peirce’s history, the city was a huge exporter of furniture all over the country. So cheap were the goods from Cincinnati that local cabinetmakers all up and down the Mississippi could not compete.
Among the leading factories was Mitchell and Rammelsberg. Never heard of them? Not surprising. Most people haven’t. But the company employed 600 people in 1870 and was so large it had a dormitory for 250 workers and a 15,000-square-foot showroom for wares (the factory was even bigger). The furniture would not please many woodworkers. Some might even call it the stuff that killed an appreciation of quality.
We Helped Kill the Cut Nail: In 1875, Father Goebel, a Catholic priest, settled in Covington, Ky., and set up the American Wire and Screw Nail Co., according to “Audel’s Carpenter’s Guide.” Though wire nails had been made in this country since about 1851, this factory drove the wire nails into the coffin of the cut nail.
The Greene Brothers: Charles and Henry Greene were born here. Technically, it was in a town (Brighton, on the west side) that no longer exists but was absorbed by Cincinnati. I’ve looked for the house using land records and can’t find it. The maps are a bit messed up. And if it weren’t for the Gambles (of Procter and Gamble fame here) we wouldn’t have the Gamble House in Pasadena, Calif.
Machinery and Tools: Cincinnati was a major center for manufacturing woodworking machinery and supplies. J.A. Fay and Egan were here (they were huge). Parks Machinery. Cincinnati Tool Co. – a worldwide supplier of high-quality clamps. Woodrow & McParlin (makers of the Panther saw). And on and on. I’ve seen a list of about 150 machinery manufacturers that have operated here.
Shop of the Crafters: During the Arts & Crafts movement, Cincinnati contributed Rookwood Pottery and the Shop of the Crafters. Everyone has heard of Rookwood, but Shop of the Crafters produced a line of highly original designs that had European flair and weren’t just knock-offs of Stickley stuff. I have an original Shop of the Crafters Morris chair in my living room.
Art Carving: During the late 19th century the city became a center for teaching carving – particularly to women – who would come here for classes from famous English carvers. There’s an entire book about this phenomenon, but if you want most of the story, this Chipstone article will fill you in.
There’s more, of course. You have to learn about Henry Boyd, a former slave who patented his cool “swelled rail” bedsteads. And Gorilla Glue is here. As is Millers Falls….
— Christopher Schwarz