Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson

White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC, Part 2

White Furniture will never be dead so long as we have children who have children. You take my son. A lot of things I do at home when I’m working around my little shop, I do as he’s around. I’ll show him whether it’s a different kind of wood or whether it’s maybe boring a hole in cherry that’s very brittle and will break unless you bore a hole before you put a screw in it. That my son learns. He knows how to sand with the grain of the wood, and so long as he’s alive he can pass that on to his children. White’s will always be alive so long as there are people around in this area. Wherever we go, whatever we do, White’s will never be dead.

— Ronnie  Sykes, 27-year employee at White Furniture Company

Here is White Furniture, Part 1.

The 1980s gave us terms like hostile takeover, conglomerates, outsourcing, leveraged buyouts and downsizing. The U.S. furniture market, once dominant and respected, found itself struggling to survive. White Furniture Company, family owned and operated since 1881, was sold to Hickory Furniture in 1985. The newly formed Hickory-White Corporation closed the Mebane factory in 1993.

In its few years as owner of the White factory, Hickory-White pushed for increased productivity and speed at the expense of craftsmanship. Short cuts became the norm.

 When Hickory took over, if it was off an eighth of an inch, why, that didn’t make any difference, we’d just cut the drawer a little bit and make it fit. The hole, if it were an eighth of an inch too big, we’d drive a thumbtack under each side of it.

— James Gilland, 41-year employee at White Furniture Company

Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson’s book Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory presents White Furniture Company as a microcosm of events occurring across the country. American manufacturing — furniture making and a multitude of other industries — died in the 1980s and 1990s. We found ourselves living in a postindustrial country — and then the Great Recession hit. By experience or extension, we all understand the pain caused by losing jobs, craftsmanship, and community.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Layoff meeting, cabinet room. Photograph by Bill Bamberger

At its heart, then, the White Furniture story is not just about economics. It is about personal loss and family tensions. It is about the job of work and the tragedy of being deprived of work. It is about the sense of self that comes from taking  pride in one’s craft. And it is about the sense of community that develops when people who might otherwise have little in common–men and women, blacks, Hispanics, and whites–work side by side, depending on one another to get a job done right. (Davidson, 19-20)

In late 1992, when Bill Bamberger learned that the White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC, would close, he sought permission to document the factory and workers’ final months. The operation was neither quick nor painless. White Furniture didn’t close all at once. Its end was gradual, an excruciating, clinical procedure that came like dying gasps. As the final pieces of furniture wended their way through the construction process, clusters of despondent workers received word to leave their line and head for the personnel department.

The kiln area was first to go. Then the rough mill, when its noisy saws fell silent. Then the glue machine workers. The machine room. The sanding room. Assembling. Finishing. Lastly, with  the factory quiet for the first time in over a century, the men and women of the rub and pack station were called to the personnel office. They waited for the inevitable, a few meaningless words, a handful of papers, a handshake, and an end to their way of life. The White Furniture factory, the beating heart of Mebane, would never reopen.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Workers with their pension papers. Photograph by Bill Bamberger

I learned of White Furniture Company after David and I bought several pieces of their furniture at an estate sale. The more I read on the subject, the more interested I became. Their story was equal parts sad and uplifting, displaying the very best and very worst of the American Dream. Our pieces are more meaningful now, with a poignant story to go with their beautifully crafted lines.

Our magnificent dining room set appeared in my White, Part 1 post, but we have more White Furniture to share. Three bedroom pieces: a vanity seat (a young couple beat us to the vanity, yet inexplicably left the seat behind) and two French Provincial twin bed frames with softly sloping cane headboards. They take my breath away.

White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: Vanity Stool
White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: French Provincial Twin Bed Frames

I am incredibly grateful to Bill Bamberger for allowing me to use a few of his powerful photographs. His unflinching lens captured the end of an era in this country, his snapshots a somber vignette of what so many Americans have come to face. The stunned looks on the weary faces of White’s craftsmen as their livelihood disappears is heartbreaking. I can’t help but wonder which of these workers helped craft my pieces of furniture.

The venerable White Furniture Company lived and died and people should know about it. One final photo demonstrates the dedication of this family of workers. On his final day Avery made sure his section, the now empty cabinet room, looked spick-and-span before he set down his broom, walked out the door one last time, and into the unknown.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Avery sweeping the cabinet room floor on his final day of work. Photograph by Bill Bamberger
Ann Marie and David

Read about our White Furniture Company Clothes Press.

Wondering about the resale value of White Fine Furniture? Read How Much Is My White Fine Furniture Worth?

Can You Name My White Fine Furniture Collection?

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White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC, Part 1

We believed in building the best furniture humans could build — furniture that you be proud of forever and a day.                                        

— Robert Riley, former shipping superintendent and 31-year employee at White Furniture Company

White Furniture Company of Mebane, North Carolina, made exceptional furniture. The crème de la crème. If you ever see a White piece, study it and appreciate it. If you can buy it, do so. This quality of furniture simply does not exist anymore.

David and I couldn’t believe our good fortune when we discovered a full mid-century modern dining room set and french provincial bed frames at a recent estate sale. High quality mid-century pieces are rare to stumble upon in northeast Florida. It turns out White Furniture is even rarer. We knew White made fine furniture but not much more. The pieces looked incredible. What else could we do but negotiate a good price and load up?

White Furniture Mebane NC
White Furniture Dining Room Set: China Cabinet, Dining Table with Chairs, Sideboard
White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: China Cabinet
White Furniture of Mebane, NC
White Furniture: Sideboard
White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: Dining Room Arm Chairs

I researched the company and discovered this premier furniture manufacturer no longer exists. Clearly I needed to do more digging. I bought the highly informative and heartbreaking book about White Furniture’s final months: Closing: The Life and Death of An American Factory by Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson (1998). The book shed some light on this American institution, but more on that below.

The White brothers started the company in 1881, the year the town of Mebane incorporated. The company and the town were intrinsically linked. The four White brothers — Will, Dave, J. Sam, and Steve A. — served as successive presidents from 1881 to 1969, a total of 88 years. Early on they elected to produce high-end furniture and appeal to Southern and Northern markets. Imagine how audacious this business decision was because the Civil War ended less than 20 years earlier.

They imbued an appreciation for craftsmanship, loyalty, respect, and dignity among their employees. Job stability remained so high that employees joked about openings becoming available only because of death or retirement.

The company accumulated contracts and awards. In 1906 White’s shipped 58 boxcars by train to the Panama Canal when the U.S. government ordered oak furniture for its officers and enlisted men. Every boxcar featured a 20-foot banner proclaiming “FROM THE WHITE FURNITURE CO., MEBANE, N.C., FOR U.S. GOVERNMENT, PANAMA CANAL.”

White Furniture Co. trainload headed to Panama Canal
White Furniture Co. trainload headed to Panama Canal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1912 Arthur White visited the construction site of the new Grove Park Inn in Asheville. He hoped to sell his company’s wares but encountered resistance. Arthur’s nephew, Stephen A. White V recounted the family story:

Arthur did most of the selling, especially the sales of furniture for fine resorts. White Furniture Company shipped a sample dresser to Asheville to be shown as a typical piece of our quality. The gentleman who was in charge of buying furniture ‘pooh-poohed’ the idea of any furniture made in a little country town in North Carolina being even close to the standards, which were wanted for the Grove Park Inn. So, my Uncle Arthur uncrated the dresser and asked the potential buyer to select one of the drawers from the dresser and he would give a demonstration, which would prove that White Furniture Company produced furniture, which would stand the use and abuse to which it would be subjected. A drawer was selected and taken from the dresser and laid down on the floor upside down. Then Uncle Arthur jumped on the drawer and there was no sign of the abuse to which it was subjected. Arthur brought the order home in his pocket.    –Speech given before the North Carolina Historical Society in Chapel Hill in 1982; typed manuscript, private collection.

Grove Park Inn, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC at Asheville
Grove Park Inn, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC at Asheville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steve White IV was the last of the original White brothers. After his death in 1969, the second generation provided stewardship for the next 15 years, until the White family shareholders narrowly voted to sell the business to Hickory. The newly formed Hickory-White Company continued to make furniture until the factory closed in 1993. Under Hickory’s leadership, quantity soon superseded quality.

Bamberger and Davidson’s book Closing highlights White Furniture Company, but White   represents the many American companies trying to navigate the economic turmoil of the 1980s. The closing of the renowned White Furniture Company and the impact on Mebane, NC, is the story of small towns and cities all over the country. As the U.S. shifted from a manufacturing nation, we moved into a new post-industrial era.

For myself, I am thrilled that Bill Bamberger gave me permission to feature a few of his dramatic photos of White’s craftsmen in action. Their labors convey beauty and grace. These photos attest to their dedication.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Andrew inspecting bedpost. Photo by Bill Bamberger

 

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
James sanding mirror frames. Photo by Bill Bamberger
Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Sanding bed frame, cabinet room. Photo by Bill Bamberger
Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Joan in the spray booth, finishing department. Photo by Bill Bamberger

Head over to Part 2 where I’ll share photos of the White bedroom furniture we bought and discuss the closing of the venerable White Furniture Company.

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Ann Marie and David

Read about our White Furniture Company Clothes Press.
Wondering about the resale value of White Fine Furniture? Read How Much Is My White Fine Furniture Worth?

Can You Name My White Fine Furniture Collection?

Participating in:
FFF.banner1 Rooted In Thyme Treasure Hunt Thursday Embracing Change Elizabeth and Co.ModMixButtonsmall2-1The Dedicated House DIY Vintage Chic jle8d Dwellings-The Heart of Your Home The Painted Drawer Art Is Beauty frenchframegfairy005bw-1-1-2

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