Cincinnati’s (Unvarnished) Woodworking History

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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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14 Responses to Cincinnati’s (Unvarnished) Woodworking History

  1. tsstahl says:

    LAP moving into the Frommers and Fodor space?
    Not that that is a bad thing. Quality local flavor is always hard to find.

  2. tony roberto says:

    how about globe wernike(sp) biggest mfg of barrister cabinets

    • lostartpress says:

      … or that Cincinnati was the country’s leading producer of carriages in 1890? My wife’s boss comes from a line of carriage makers and still has some of his ancestor’s tools. It’s a common tale here.

  3. billlattpa says:

    You’ve pointed out something I’ve said quite a few times (and a couple of times to Eric Sloane’s ghost) :The late 20th century woodworker/craftsman/pick a trade didn’t bring about the end of quality work, those changes were decided on and made around the time of the Civil War. We’re just trying to pick up the pieces.

    • Tom Pier says:

      Too many times we blame the manufacturer for decisions made by the consumers. Time and time again consumers, as a group, have been willing to choose lower prices over higher quality.

      • billlattpa says:

        You are very right. But I do think there is a bit of collusion involved. I’ve always said that most manufacturers as a rule will choose profit margin over quality every time. A high profit margin almost universally can only be obtained by cheap manufacturing in a mass market situation. Of course there will always be niche customers who are able and willing to pay top dollar for high quality products. I do think that if some manufacturers decided to make more high quality products, from furniture, to tools, to clothing, there would be more competitve pricing and the playing field would be leveled at least a little with the junk makers.
        Sometimes we as consumers are forced with choosing the “best of the worst” when it comes to many things. I think that is one of the reasons I try to make my own furniture. The last thing I made was a TV stand. I couldn’t find one that I liked and was well made anywhere, and I simply couldn’t afford to commision one as much as I wish I could have, so I made one to my own specs. Of course I also make furniture because I enjoy it.

  4. Wow super neat article. I’m looking forward to learning more about our Queen City’s woodworking history – or is it the City That Sings?

  5. Mark Chadwick says:

    In this age of worn out cliques, it’s remarkable that someone can use one of them for the perfect circumstance.
    “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.”
    This one made me smile. How enjoyable it is to read this daily blog.

  6. Dan Miller says:

    Thanks for that info Chris! I love that stuff. When I came to WIA there a couple of years back, the wife and I loved having diner inside the original kilns at the old Rookwood Factory. I have pictures of the very cool carved chairs, turned upside down to look at the construction (obviously when no one was looking)

  7. Patrick says:

    Cool picture. Three companies, one building, one stop shopping for the home: furniture, stoves, groceries. The first big box?
    Also, are there any tools in your wife’s boss’ collection that you are absolutely drooling over? (Not that h’d ever part with them given the family history.)

  8. andrae says:

    “Thank you sir may I have another.” I enjoy the history lessons, good and bad.

  9. Wes Smith says:

    Did not know that Cincinnati was also a “Queen City” As a native of Charlotte I thought we were the only “Queen City”. Once again Wikipedia has treated my ignorance.

  10. Mark Gilsdorf says:

    For anyone coming to Cincinnati for Woodworking in America, set aside some time to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum. They have a great collection of Art Carved furniture, both in the Cincinnati Wing and the 6,000 Years open storage exhibit, in addition to their Rookwood collection.

  11. dave says:

    Not half-witty, but how about half-picky: I would have thought that local cabinet makers up and down the Ohio River would have been hit harder than those way down on the Mississippi . . .

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