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.
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.
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.
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.
Ann Marie and David
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