Special Collections intern, Georgie Burgess, reflects on the place of the furniture manufacturer in Victorian society.
Over the last six weeks I have delved into the worlds of three 19th century furniture retailers: Maple & Co., Waring & Gillow, and Druce & Co. What I have discovered is an industry which was filled with opportunities for great success but also an ever-present threat of collapse.
The John Evan Bedford Library of Furniture History was my starting point. The collection itself is an impressive feat and one that clearly stemmed from John Bedford’s own deep passion and curiosity. The small sample I worked with included meticulously cut out clippings, auction catalogues, news articles, journal articles, and handwritten notes by John himself.
The trade cards in the collection are small, individual pieces of art. They were designed to immortalise a business in a style of their choosing, but the reality of the furniture trader was much more unstable.
Maple & Co. was one of the most popular furnishing companies of the late 19th century. They secured contracts to furnish luxury hotels, yachts, and royal palaces both at home and across the British Empire. Yet scandal was never far away.
In the 1850s, furniture production in London was largely divided in two. The West End ran the retail sector, and the East End controlled the wholesale and manufacturing side. While this dynamic could incite cooperation it could also foster grey areas of authenticity. For example, by the 1880s most of Maples’ goods were being manufactured in East End workshops. Why, then, were these pieces were being affixed with “Maples Quality” stamps and being sold in their own showrooms with incredible markups?
Furthermore, in 1888 John Blundell Maple MP, owner of Maple & Co., was accused of inciting poor working conditions and was brought before the Select Committee on the Sweating System. The company was accused of using their monopoly on goods to force smaller business and workers into financial instability and dependency. Though Maple was acquitted, the case momentarily dampened the business’ reputation.
One of the more eccentric stories to be unearthed was the Druce-Portland affair. Thomas Charles Druce of Druce & Co. had died in 1864. It was after his death, however, that Druce’s daughter-in-law began to raise claims that Druce was living a secret double life as the 5th Duke of Portland. If this were true, she would inherit the ducal titles and wealth of the estate rather than his furniture store. The scandal reached its crescendo in 1907 when Druce’s coffin was exhumed, his body found intact, and the case dismissed. While a disappointing end for some, Druce & Co. had briefly become a cause célèbre of fin de siècle London.
In addition to these two scandals, the companies dealt with fires that destroyed floors of stock, debt collection, and the disruption of war. It is these personal stories and elements of social history that have been the most surprising and eye-opening aspects of my research. Moreover, it is through the generosity and selflessness of collectors like John Bedford that these companies and the hard work of their employees can shine once again.