American Ingenuity Spawns a New Industry
by Mark Mosher
Wicker and Rattan furniture as a commercial industry was created in America and not in Asia as many assume. The American production of wicker furniture began in the 1840's. This occured after the Chinese opened a number of treaty ports to foreign trade. Clipper ships would leave China bound for America with a variety of goods. Raw cane rattan was used as dunnage to secure the cargo and prevent shifting. This raw cane would then be discarded and left at the docks on America's east coast. One day in 1844, a 33-year-old grocer by the name of Cyrus Wakefield, collected an armful of the discarded rattan that had been abandoned at Constitution Wharf in Boston. Wakefield took notice on how flexible the cane was and an idea struck him. Could the cane be wrapped to produce furniture? Wakefield was not a furniture maker by trade but he still bent the rattan to produce a chair. He saw the infinitie potential of the material and quit his grocer job to pursue the rattan and cane idea full time..
To start his business Wakefield traded the raw rattan to basket makers and furniture manufacturers. The manufacturers used just the outer cane to weave chair seats and backs. In 1855, Wakefield and his wife left Boston and moved to South Reading, Massachusetts. There he established the Wakefield Rattan Company. He continued to sell the imported rattan throughout the United States and he continued to experiment with wicker furniture. Bending oak or hickory into flowing shapes, the frames were filled with ornate rattan patterns and wrapped with split cane.
Wakefield realized the reed or inner pith of the whole rattan plant had tremendous flexibility, enabling him to create ornate, Victorian designs. Throughout the 1860's the Wakefield Rattan Company cornered the market on the wicker furniture industry. From 1865-1880, the majority of wicker furniture was made for indoor use, although it was becoming fashionable as garden and porch furniture. A businessman and investor, Wakefield's generosity also matched his success. He would donate both the money and the land for construction of the South Reading town hall and in 1868, the citizens of South Reading voted to rename their town Wakefield in his honor.
Wakefield Rattan Company had fierce competition from another furniture maker, Heywood Brothers Company of Gardner, Massachusetts. Their rivalry from the 1870's through the late 1890's would mark the period known as The Golden Age of Wicker, as both furniture designers created increasingly exotic and elaborate wicker pieces. Their originality and craftsmanship were unparalleled.
In 1897 the Wakefield Rattan Co. merged with the firm of Heywood Bros. and for the next two decades this newly formed company all but monopolized sales of quality wicker furniture. As the 1900's progressed, Victorian and Art-Nouveau designs were considered increasingly gauche. Angular European designs began to curry favor and the Arts and Crafts movement took hold. The Gustav Stickley Company of Eastwood, New York began creating no-nonsense Mission-style furniture in oak and willow.
In response to this new trend, the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company began to produce similar designs in 1905, but with added features such as built-in footrests and magazine holders. By the 1920's there was a marked increase in the number of wicker items available. Besides settees, rockers, dining sets and occasional tables, items included phonograph stands, tea carts, smoking stands, floor and table lamps, planters, blanket chests, china cabinets, baby buggies, desks and sewing cabinets.
You would be surprised to know that there are still manufacturers here in the U.S.A that build wicker and rattan furniture. There are only a few but its nice to know we have kept that expertise here in America and of course keep those jobs here as well. You will note the American made items on our site with the MADE IN USA label. And as you might expect a lot of the manufacturing is also done in the Philippines, Indonesia, and China.Wakefield's early designs still form the basic framework of ideas used in today's Rattan and Wicker furniture.
Home of American Rattan and Wicker
Did you know?
* Conversation chairs (an S-shaped wicker sofa) allowed 19th century courting couples to sit face-to-face without touching.
* The airier look of wicker at the turn of the 20th century was largely due to rising costs in labor and increases in tariffs on imported rattan. This economical style of open weaving is most often found on chaise lounges and armchairs, designed for use by hotels. Manufacturers named these products after well-known resort areas, including Bar Harbor, Southampton and Newport. Today, open weave wicker of this period is usually referred to as Bar Harbor.
Sunroom set example of a Wakefield Bar Harbor design still in use today: