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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?