Chair & Furniture
The manufacturing of chairs would become the dominant economy of Gardner as local industrialists became innovators in methods of furniture production. Eventually the community achieved international recognition as a major center for chair fabrication to the point that it became known as the “chair city of the world.”
Credit for the production of the first chairs is given to James Comee who, in 1805, with the use of a foot lathe began the manufacturing of wood and flag seated chairs. Later, Elijah Putnam, who served as an apprentice to Comee, began the construction of open cane seated chairs. At first his method of production was the foot-powered lathe but he eventually adopted wind-power, a horse treadmill and water-power.
By 1878 twelve chair shops had been established in Gardner. One of these shops was begun by the Heywood Brothers in 1826. This was the inception of what would become the Heywood-Wakefield Company, the single largest manufacturer of chairs in the United States. Under the leadership of one of the brothers, Levi Heywood, innovative production methods were introduced such as steam power, the use of band saws and new processes for bending wood. Levi also introduced a whole new line of products. In addition to wooden chairs, rattan and reed chairs and furniture were manufactured, and eventually the company was the first to produce baby carriages made of rattan and reed.
Just some other companies who conducted chair and furniture manufacturing in the city were Conant Ball Company which made cane seat chairs and later bedroom and dining chairs, P. Derby and Company which became the second largest manufacturer of chairs in the United States, C.H. Hartshorn Inc. manufactured hand woven reed chairs and later maple furniture, Gem Industries became well known for its dormitory furniture, Conant Ball Company produced cane seat chairs and reproductions of early American furniture. Also, both S. Bent and Brothers Inc. and Nichols and Stone Company became nationally known for the manufacturing of college and university chairs.
Essentially, except for Nichols and Stone, large scale chair and furniture manufacturing has disappeared in Gardner. However, the Gardner Museum preserves the memory of this once vibrant industry with an extensive chair and furniture display that can be seen throughout the Museum. Amongst the items on display are: James Comee chair from the early 1800s
S. Bent Brothers highchair circa 1850 and a five spindle chair
Conant Ball wooden side chair
Gem Industries crib
Nichols and Stone rocker
Heywood-Wakefield antique Victorian sewing table, wicker piano chair, a five piece bedroom set hand decorated by the Hill brothers, an executive desk, school desks, baby carriages, a child’s crib which is an example of the first steam wood bending process, and a double seat from the former Boston Garden.
It should also be noted that, within its collections, the Museum has numerous catalogs and photographs from the furniture industry.