1859: William A. Berkey manufactures window sashes and doors for building construction.
1882: After years as a director of various other furniture companies, Berkey opens his own factory.
1885: Company incorporates as William A. Berkey Furniture Co.
1950: Company is purchased but continues to operate as a division of John Widdicomb Co.
1976: Company ceases to operate as a separate division.
William A. Berkey spent years as a part owner of Berkey Brothers & Co. and the Phoenix Furniture Co. before he severed his ties to furniture making in 1863. But in 1882 he returned to furniture, with the organization of his own company. He served as his company’s president until his death, when he was succeeded by his son-in-law W.H. Jones. He, in turn was succeeded as head of the company by his son, E. Berkey Jones. He ran the company until it was purchased by Lewis T. Peck and A.G. Green in 1940. In 1950 ownership of the company passed to the John Widdicomb Co.
The first products of the William A. Berkey Furniture Co. were fine- and medium-grade wood-top center tables in native oak, ash, maple, and “bay wood”. By 1886 the factory was producing 20,000 tables and pedestals a year. By the 1890s its line had expanded considerably, to include upholstered parlor furniture and fancy cabinets. Its offerings for the parlor included fancy chairs and rockers, couches, rattan chairs and rockers, and center tables. By 1900, William A. Berkey was offering dressers, chiffonniers, bookcases, parlor and music cabinets, and library, work, toilet, and bedroom tables, mostly in mahogany.
In the 1910s and ‘20s William A. Berkey Furniture Co. established itself as a producer of mahogany period revival furniture for the dining room, library and living room in various American Colonial and 18th-century European styles, including Empire, Jacobean, Oriental lacquer, Adam, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and Chippendale. During the 1930s the company manufactured mostly tables, as well as some desks and secretaries, corner china cabinets, bookcases, chests of drawers, highboys and lowboys, dining room suites, and a few bedroom pieces, in mahogany only.
Beginning in the 1950s the company began producing furniture to complement John Widdicomb Co.’s other lines. A William A. Berkey catalog circa 1972 shows the “Interlude” line of bedroom furniture in matching French poplar veneers, and the “Beta Group” of contemporary bedroom and dining room furniture. Both were nearly identical in styling to the “Wellington Group” produced by Berkey’s parent company, John Widdicomb.
An archival collection relating to the formation of the William A. Berkey Furniture Co. is in the collections of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
1897: Widdicomb Mantel Co. re-incorporates as John Widdicomb Co.
1901 – 1906: John Widdicomb Co. purchases and operates former plants of Charlotte Chair Co. in Charlotte, Michigan, and the Kent Furniture Co. plant in Grand Rapids.
1929: Widdicomb family sells interest in company.
1950: John Widdicomb Co. acquires William A. Berkey Furniture Co.
1951: Company acquires Vander Ley Brothers Co.
1956: Company acquires Grand Rapids Bookcase and Chair Co.
1970: John Widdicomb Co. purchases the name and goodwill of Widdicomb Furniture Co.
1973: Hickory Furniture Co. of Hickory, North Carolina buys John Widdicomb Co.
1986: Group of Michigan-based investors purchases John Widdicomb Co.
1996: Grand Rapids Furniture Co. purchases John Widdicomb Co. and Jim Devries becomes chairman.
1998: John Widdicomb Co. manufacturing operations and office were moved to the newly renovated Grand Rapids furniture campus at 560 Fifth St., the former Widdicomb plant.
1998: John Widdicomb Co. signed an exclusive licensing agreement with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England
2002: The John Widdicomb Co. closed its Grand Rapids doors and a new chapter in the history of the company began. L & J.G. Stickley purchased the assets of the John Widdicomb Company and moved production of this product to their state of the art manufacturing plant in Manlius, New York.
John Widdicomb started his namesake company in 1897 after his short-lived Widdicomb Mantel Co. failed. During his tenure as head of the company, he served as the president of the National Association of Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers. John Widdicomb’s son, Harry became president of the company upon his father’s death in 1910.
J. Fred Lyon purchased controlling interest in John Widdicomb Co. in 1929, with a minority interest held by John L. Stuart. Stuart became the major stockholder and chairman of the board in 1939 when Lyon retired. Stuart and his family owned most of the stock until 1969, when they arranged a management buy-out in 1969.
John D. Hanink first came to work at John Widdicomb in 1935. He became presedent and general manager in 1964. In 1969 he created the Furniture Corporation of American a holding company that purchased the John Widdicomb Co. He retired as president and C.E.O. in 1977.
Mike Greengard (former president of the Charlotte Chair Co.) and a group of investors purchased the company from Hickory Furniture Co. in 1986, and appointed Greengard president.
Ralph H. Widdicombe, a nephew of Harry Widdicomb, joined his uncle’s company as designer in 1898. He was awarded the first prize at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for his American Empire-style mahogany bedroom suite. Even after the family sold the business in 1929, Ralph stayed on as chief of design until his retirement in 1951. English-born designer Stanley Green, who received his training as an apprentice at London’s Waring & Gillow, designed English Revival and French Provincial pieces at John Widdicomb from 1933 into the 1950s.
Chad Womack, originator of the Company’s Russian and British Indian lines, became a designer for John Widdicomb in 1986. Designer Diane Granda also worked on the development of the Russian line, and was responsible for many of the company’s English collection designs from the 1980s and ‘90s, and the Mar-a-lago reproductions introduced in 1990. In 1989 interior designer Mario Buatta, know by the nickname “The Prince of Chintz,” contracted to design of furniture for John Widdicomb.
The John Widdicomb Co.’s first products included interior woodwork and fireplace overmantels, like its predecessor company. It soon changed to medium-priced chamber or bedroom suites and kitchen cabinets.
In 1901 Ralph Widdicombe introduced a line inspired by the European Modern movement. In that same year the company contracted with the Singer Sewing Machine Co. to produce cabinets for 200,000 sewing machines. In 1902 a similar contract was negotiated for 25,000 sewing machine cabinets with the national Sewing Machine Co.
During the 1910s and ‘20s the company continued to produce bedroom suites with matched and contrasting veneers of mahogany, satinwood, harewood (a veneer, usually Sycamore that has been stained), Circassian walnut, maple burl, and gilt, marquetry, or hand-painted floral and scenic decoration, in Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, Jacobean, Queen Anne, and Louis XVI Revival styles. Some Louis XVI suites from the late 1910s and early 1920s included woven rattan panels and enameling. In 1928 the company introduced a Modern suite based on Sheraton forms, with matched French walnut veneers and ebony sides. Advertisements from 1929 also list individual pieces for the living room, library, and hall in addition to bedroom suites, for the first time.
Ralph Widdicombe designed the first French Provincial line of furniture in the United States in 1924, based on examples collected in Europe. A large bombe chest featured gilt decoration and a large cartouche with pastoral scenic painting. A small bombe bureau from that line has remained in continuous production for more than seven decades.
John Widdicomb’s pre-war production in the early 1940s included groups for the bedroom and dining room, and occasional pieces of walnut, mahogany, fruitwood, satinwood, and bleached maple with gilding, and many all-over decorative paint finished, in revival styles including French Provincial, English Regency, Chippendale, Sheraton, and Chinese Lacquer. Special lines included “poudre tables,” a combination dressing table and lady’s writing desk for the bedroom, and “Di-functional tables,” which could close into small drop-leaf tables that were placed against a wall, or expand with center and drop leaves to seat up to ten.
1950s lines of bedroom furniture included the Italian Directoire line, and new introductions to the company’s perennially popular French Provincial line. 1970s lines for the bedroom, dining room, living room, and executive office followed the company’s traditional strengths, including Country French (French Provincial), Louis XV and XVI, Italian Directoire and Venetian, English Regency and Early English, and Oriental styles. A new addition was the “Wellington Group” for the home, which consisted of modern, rectangular case pieces of olive ash veneer with walnut trim, and seating with woven rattan panels. A companion line of executive furniture was also based on the Wellington line as were several lines produced by the subsidiary William A. Berkey Furniture Co.
The “Treasures From Around The World” collection of antique hardwood reproductions, designed by Lucile Fickett and produced in the mid-1980s, included a Chippendale secretary, Queen Anne bookcase, and a chinoiserie writing table. Chad Womack’s first Russian Empire pieces were introduced in 1987 as expansions of the 1986 German Biedermeier line. But the popularity of these masculine styled, richly veneered pieces, with carvings and hardware of lions, two-headed eagles griffins, and sphinxes, some combined with an end-of-the-Cold-War fascination with Russia to make the Russian line a strong seller in its own right.
The romantic Buatta collection, begun in 1989, featured reproductions and adaptations from interior designer Mario Buatta’s own collection of English Regency antiques, and brought designer name recognition to the company. Forms included breakfronts, coffee tables, and demi-lune tables in mahogany, rosewood, ebony, and satinwood veneers. It also featured flowery chintz sofas, chairs, and ottomans, with tufted backs, rolled arms and fringe; the first fully upholstered furniture to be made by the company.
In 1990 Diane Granda began to design the “Mar-a-Lago” collection based on furniture in the 1920s Florida estate built for breakfast food heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and more recently owned by developer Donald Trump. In 1994 Womack’s “British India Collection” was introduced. It featured pieces that combined the traditional forms of English Regency, Chippendale, Adam, and Sheraton with exotic materials such a faux ivory and tortoise shell, and Saracenic and Islamic decorative motifs of the Indian sub-continent.
The Grand Rapids Public Library owns a large collection of catalogs and original archival materials from the Widdicomb and John Widdicomb Companies, from the Founding of John Widdicomb to circa 1951.
MARKS AND LABELS
Circa 1920 the company used a very fluid “JWCO” monogram, framed in a vertical oval, with candle sconces and a tall, fanciful finial. This was modified during the late 1920s and early 1930s to a “JWCo” monogram in a vertical oval, surrounded on the bottom and sides by laurel boughs and on top with a bow. In the 1940s every piece was given a paper label bearing that mark and the words “MADE BY/JOHN WIDDICOMB CO./DESIGNED BY/Ralph H. Widdicombe/GRAND RAPIDS”.
In the 1950s the company name was printed in a circular, sans-serif type, with all lower-case letters. In the 1970s the trademark was a “jw” monogram in a square of horizontal lines. Pieces from the “Teasures From Around The World” line were numbered and affixed with a brass plate engraved with the buyer’s name, as well as an engrave plate marked “John Widdicomb Co.” The 1990s trademark is a somewhat sharp “jw” monogram.
The source, with permission of the author, is Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian G. Carron, published by the Grand Rapids Public Museum. 1998.