Collecting Canadian Furniture

The history of Canadian Furniture can be divided into 2 parts. Prior to about 1870 furniture was made by individual craftsmen or in small furniture shops of under a dozen men. The market was mostly local. After 1870, furniture became hi-tech. Steam power was practical and available. The railway ran from Sarnia to Montreal and north into the Bruce Peninsula and through the Muskokas. Population of Canada was exploding and so was prosperity. There was a need for a great deal of solid, inexpensive but stylish furniture.

Western Ontario became the focus for most of the furniture production in Canada from 1880 through 1940. This was a result of several factors all coming together at the same time.

The American Revolution of 1776, the War of 1812, the growth of the German & Mennonite populations in Pennsylvania combined with Lord Simcoe’s immigration policies of the early part of the century resulted in a large number of skilled trades people as well as farmers settling in the Niagara Peninsula and then upward into the Bruce, Grey Counties along the rivers and the shore of Lake Huron. These areas were densely forested with hardwoods, oak and walnut etc and were also potentially good farm land. This combination had great appeal for the settlers of German descent who had strong farming and cabinet making skills.

By 1870, the railway had reached the lake ports of Owen Sound, Collingwood etc, the towns of Hanover, Wingham, Wiarton and Southampton and others were well established and the demand for furniture was insatiable. The population of Toronto went from 46,000 in 1871 to 181,000 in 1891.  The Civil War had seriously disrupted the American economy and thus created shortages of imports from America. In 1878 the Canadian Government passed a Tariff protecting domestic furniture against imports.

All the factors came together and the growth started.

Check your furniture at home that came from the family. CFM (Canadian Furniture Manufacturers), Chesley Furniture, Owen Sound Furniture, Krug, Knechtel, Malcolm, Bell, Peppler are just some of the names you may find.

The introduction of steam powered lathes and saws etc meant standardization and loss of individuality. The factories could reproduce Chippendale, Sheraton, Queen Ann and all the other styles of the previous 200 years. Everything became mix and match. However, style and fashion still influence what people buy and the styles in furniture changed about every 15 years. We can look at a buffet and with reasonable certainty identify its age within a 10-15 year period.

A lot of the furniture produced was Oak especially at the turn of the century. Black Walnut, an early favourite, was becoming expensive, Mahogany had to be imported and Oak was plentiful. The prestige pieces were still made of Walnut and Mahogany but the demand was coming from the growing middle class. Eaton’s Catalogue first appeared in 1884 and by 1912 you could order complete homes (from siding to plumbing, bedroom suites to kitchen sink) ready to assemble, delivered to your homestead. Therefore inexpensive practical furniture was needed and the Canadian Factories provided.

As well as the big factories in Western Ontario, there were others in Quebec and the Maritimes. Many small factories came and went and finding examples of their work is challenging. For example, The Orillia Furniture Company was in existence from 1906 to at least 1930. Located at the bottom of Andrew St, south of the tracks, the company produced Dining Room Buffets among other things. Little else is known.