An Old New York Cabinet Maker: Experiences of Ernest Hagen
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An Old New York Cabinet Maker: Experiences of Ernest Hagen

The most visible signs of industrialization in mid nineteenth-century America occurred in mushrooming factory towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, but changes in manufacturing also took place in metropolises like New York City. Waves of immigrants entered the port cities ’small workshops, sites of intense craft activity. Cabinetmaking resisted mechanization and unskilled labor because the trade required intricate work on complex pieces of furniture. In his unpublished memoir German immigrant Ernst Hagen recalled that many of the leading names in nineteenth-century furniture, well represented today in museum collections, presided over large shops of toiling workers. Some employed over two hundred hands. The post-Civil War rise of western factories disrupted this urban system; skilled workers either found other employment or were relegated to margins of the trade such as repair work.

Being born in the City of Hamburg in Germany on September 8, 1830, we came to Now York June 22, 1844, after a passage of 47 days in a small German sailing vessel. A year later, 1845, father indentured me to a party of German cabinet makers ( Krieg & Dohrmann) located at #106 Norfolk Street, near the present terminal of the Delancy Street Bridge. That part of the town was at that time very different from what it is now, there were but few Jews there then. Although we had only cobble stone pavement with brick sidewalks, no sewers, whale street lamps, and had to go to tin-next corner pump for drinking water, there were nice American familys living there in 2 story and attic brick houses, some of which were quite ornate with carved brownstone lintels over their windows and very ornamental front door entrances with carved collums and circular transoms with leaded sash at the top and sides and all had gardens . . .

Some people which became quite prominent in Society lived right near us. For instance, the family of the late Frederic Tappen, the noted banker, lived at 134 Rivington Street between Norfolk and Suffolk, William Tilden, of the varnish makers firm of Tilden & Blodgett lived at #l26 Rivington Street, and his nephew Wm. T. Blodgett lived with him and had their factory at the corner of Norfolk Street. With the incoming of the large German immigration about 1840–50, all those old residents moved away and a Colony of German mechanics took their place. There were cabinet makers shops, saw mills and marble mills everywhere. These cabinet makers supplied the furniture stores with their products as there was no furniture coining from the West at that time as it does now; but much of it was sent out West, and a great deal went South to New Orleans and also to the West India Islands.

The work was all done by hand, but the scroll sawing, of. course was done at the nearest sawmill. The employers (boss Cabinet makers) having no machinery at all, all the moldings were bought at the molding mill and the turning done at turning mill. The hardware, locks, hinges, bolts, and etc. was mostly imported from Germany. The journey men cabinet makers had [to] suply their own tools and work benches. They had only wood stoves in the shops and no steam heating. The journey men were paid by the piece, not by the day; but generally found it hard to earns more than a Dollar a day. The work at that time (1845) was mostly mahogany; up to about 1850 there was some rosewood work done, but no walnut and very little oak. Amongst the most prominent cabinet makers of the East side was Henry Weil, who had a large shop on Essex near Rivington Street, who sent most of his goods to New Orleans. He died a rich man, leaving about 4 Millions. He was one of the directors of the Pacific Bank. Henry Weil made those ugly heavy veneered 8 cornered high post bedsteads of which you find so many down South, also large mahogany wardrobes, dressing bureaus, and other large case work.

George Ebbinghausen had a shop on Attorney St. He done a considerable business for a time. His work was rather better than Weils, but he finally failed, dying poor.

Attorney Street, which is 12 blocks east of the Bowery and runs parralel with it, was quite a centre for small cabinet makers then. Wenzel’s sawmill was located there, and the cabinet makers seemed to cluster around it. There are none there now; it is all built up with 6 story tenement houses all filled with jews—no Cristian could live there any more; but in the time from about 1840 to about 1863 a great deal of furniture was made there which is now sold for Antique to such as don’t Know any better.

The small shops that employed say from 2 to 6 men generally made a specialty of one piece only. Some made those veneered box sofas and sold them to the dealers in the rough frames. Others made French bedsteads only. Others made bureaus, but would not make the glass frames for them, which was a branch by itself. Some would make high bookcases with secretary drops. There were no low bookcases made at all at that time. Others made those lyre card-tables all veneered on pine. Some would make those heavy centre tables with the large square bases and drop leafs. A great many shops made what was then called a “three quarter French chair”; they were all the fashion then. The “full French chair” had a round back and was more expensive and on that account was going out of style. This is about 1855. Then they began to make what was called a “sweep back chair” about the shape of this rough sketch with various changes from plain smooth frames to those with more or less gaudy carvings added to it.

In 1853 I left my old Employers in Norfolk Street and after working for several shops on Broadway got a job with Chas. A. Baudouine. #335 Broadway at the Corner of Anthony Street (now Worth Street) with whom I stayed about 2 years. Baudouine was at this time the leading cabinetmaker of New York. He employed about 70 cabinet makers, and including carvers, varnishers and upholsterers nearly 200 hands all told. He was a self made man, beginning in a small shop on Pearl Street on a capital of 300 Dollars, which he got from his wife, a Miss Ann Postly who kept a milliner shop near by. When he retired, about 1860 or so, [he] lived on 5th Avenue at the S. W. corner of 56th Street and drove a 4 in hand coach. When he died, he left a fortune between 4 and 5 Millions. The Baudouine Building at Broadway and 28th Street belong to his estate. He was born in this city of French descend and spoke French fluently. He was a tall gentlemanly apearance and looked more like an army officer. He went to France every year and imported a great deal of French furniture and upholstery coverings, French hardware, trimmings, and other material used in his shop. The work produced in his establishment consisted mostly of the gaudy, over ornate, carved rosewood furniture, although some oak dining room furniture was made, all in French carved style with bunches of fruit and game hanging on the pannels. But very little mahogany was at that time made in his shop and no walnut.

Some of Boudouines most conspicious productions were those rosewood heavy over decorated parlour suits with round perforated backs generally known as “Belter furniture” from the original inventor John H. Belter, 372 B’dway, who had a shop near by, and had a patent on the round backs of those chairs and sofas made of 5 layers of veneer glued up in a mould in one piece, which made a very strong and not heavy chair back only about & inch thick, all the ornamental carved work glued on after the perforated part of the thin back was sawed out and prepaired. Baudouine infringed on Belter’s patent by making the backs out of 2 pieces with a center joint, and this way got the best of Belter, who died a very poor man.

At Baudouine’s place this furniture was called the Jenny Lind setts, on account of Jenny Linds singing in Castle Garden under Barnums protection at the time. This furniture was all the style at that time amongst the wealthy New Yorkers. He use to get 1200 a. sett. They were generally covered in large flowered silk brocades or brocatelle. He also made large side-tables and centre tables to match with marble tops. They also made very large etageres to match, with glass back and small shelves on bracketts and any amount of gorgeous heavy carvings. This was the style about 1855–56.

Alexander Roux, 479 Broadway, was another French cabinet maker and was; the next best to Baudouine and on good terms with him. Roux’s style was rather better than Baudouines and generally lighter in character, running off in the Louis XVI style. He turned out exelent work for the time. The work-even then was mostly rosewood with oak for dining room, but now walnut began to get in fashion.

Besides some smaller houses along Broadway who done some very fair work, there was another French house near Houston Street in Broadway, Rochfort & Scarren who turned out good work; and after Mr. Rochfort['s] death,, his 2 foremen, Portier and Stymas, continued the business. They were very successful and done good work, mostly walnut which was now the dominant material. But their work was nearly all done in the “New Grec” most awfull gaudy style with brass gilt Spinx head on the sofas and arm chairs, gilt engraves lines all over with porcailaiine painted medallions on the backs, and brass gilt bead moldings nailed on. Other wise, their work was good; but the style horrible.

Leo Murcatte & Co. came next. They worked principally in the pure Louis XVI style and done the very best work. This style is really the best of all and will never go out of fashion, and, if not overdone with decoration, is simply grand. But now came a change. With Herter Brothers, a German house, and Cattier & Co., an English house, came new ideas and very old ideas revived which still continue.

1856. After Baudouine’s business was given up 1856, I went west to Milwaukie, Wis., St. Louis. Mo., and finally to New Orleans, 1857, where 1 worked for Sampson & Keene on Bienville near Royal Street, a furniture store who mostly got their suply from Henry Weil in New York. They in turn sent me to the old St. Charles Hotel on their account, repairing furniture, where I spent the winter 1857–58, coining back to New York in the spring of 1858 by the way of Havanna.

1858. I now formed a partnership with my old friend and shop mate J. Mathew Meier under the firm name of Meier & Hagen and bought out our old employers, A. Dohrmann, keeping it up at the old place #106 Norfolk Street.

The outlook was not very bright—we worked ourselves at the bench with 2 or 3 hired men and could hardly make as much as our men, which was about one Dollar a day, after defraying shop expenses. We economised where we could and held on, hoping for a good time to come. We worked mostly for the trade, suplying the furniture scores, who paid very poorly; and we had to wait a long time to get it and also lost some pretty large bills altogether by failures. We made a specialty of extension tables; and, our tables being somewhat better than those in the market at the time, we soon were known to the better class of trade and sold to the Broadway houses. But by mere accident we got a private trade among some of the old New York familys who lived on the lower Second Avenue at that time. There was a fire a block away from our shop where a lot of mahogany chairs were damaged, and Mr. Wm. Hibbard, the president of the Bowery Fire Insurance Company, had them sent to our shop to be repaired. The work was done satisfactory. He recomended us to all his friends and so [we] got in with the Winthrops, the Folsums, the Bransons, Appletons, Warner, Abraham Cozzens, and other familys at once. Mr. Benjamin R. Winthrop, at that time living at 134 Second Avenue, done all he could for us.

In the fall of 1867 we bought the property #213 East 26th Street and built a shop on it, and all went well for the next 2 or 3 years, when the great change came over the cabinet making; trade of New York. The factory work, and especially the Western factory work drove everything else out of the market. All the smaller cabinet makers were simply wiped out. There are very few left now which make a scanty living by repairing; and even the larger establishments have a hard time in competing with the Western concerns of Grand Rapids in Michigan and other out of town concerns.

The cheap furniture stores who had to get their suply from the small cabinet makers were located along the Bowery and Chatam Square; and merely mentioning the name of “Chatam Square” was not very complimentary to the ware sold there. “Chris Schwartzwaekler” was the most prominent and respectable amongst them on the Square. He had a considerable trade and also had a good West India export trade; he paid very promptly and was very successful. This is a “lyre front” bureau, one of the attractions of Chatam Square. They were all veneered on pine with mahogany and had turned mah. knobs, 3 small drawers above and 3 large drawers below. These bureaus, the “box sofa” and the 3/4 French chairs and the “French bedsteads” and large mahogany wardrobes & bookcase with secretary drops below made up the regular stock.

The furniture coverings for this furniture was mostly hair cloth, but eventually changed off to green wollen “reps” and the reason why most of the old sofas and chairs of this period were so very narrow in seat is because the wide hair cloth was very expensive and the narrow comparitivly cheap. The only remaining furniture house on Chatam Square (1908) are the “Cowpertwaits” which is established over a hundred years in the same place, as seen by the old City Directory; but they were at that time only making “Windsor Chairs” with cane seats painted in gaudy yellow and other colors, with gilt rings on the legs and bunches of flowers and fruit on the hack. There were other furniture concerns on the East side of the town, like “Degraaf & Taylor”, on the Bowery, who done a good business, Fred Kruten’s on Houston Street near the Bowery.

But the most prominent are those named. There were also some pretty well known houses on the West side who done a good business like “Newhouse” on Hudson Street, Henry and Peter Brunner on Prince and Carlton Street; but the bulk of the cheaper furniture was on the East side, while the fine furniture trade was all on Broadway below Bleecker Street.

Source: Ernest Hagen, Personal Experiences of an Old New York Cabinet Maker, Joseph Downs Manuscript Collection, Winterthur Museum and Library, published in Elizabeth A. Ingerman, “Personal Experiences of an Old New York Cabinet Maker”Antiques Magazine 84 (1963), 576–80.