Upholstery Trade


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The Furniture Guilds

hepplewhite chairs3The skills of working in silver, pewter or wood were deemed a "mystery" or art, and the guilds strove to ensure both that the art was practiced to the highest standard and that it remained exclusive to their members.

In 1563 Parliament passed "The Great Statute of Artificers" that decreed that in all trades there should be a seven-year apprenticeship to a master craftsman which had to be completed before the age of 24. The apprentice then underwent a thorough examination by guild officers, and if he passed, became a freeman of the guild. He was then entitled to set up his own business, or to offer himself to a master for employment as a qualified journeyman. Journeymen were paid by the day (from the French journee = "day"). This hierarchy of master, journeyman, and apprentice was ubiquitous, and nobody outside of it was allowed to practice any craft.

Each guild appointed "viewers and searchers" to inspect members' workshops, materials and products to ensure that there was no backsliding. Because the craft was a "mystery," the customer could not be expected to have the expertise to check these standards for him- or herself. The guilds knew that the success of a trade depended at least as much upon trusting and satisfied customers as upon skilled craftsmen. If only guild members were to be permitted to practice the craft, and if "strangers and foreigners" were to be prohibited from setting up rival businesses, then guild members had to be honest, skillful and, most important, trusted by the public. The viewers and searchers were important officers of any guild. The "quality control" they exercised was rigorous.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, guilds controlled almost all the production of goods in what was by now an expanding and prosperous capitalist economy.

Unlike silver or pewter, furniture was never marked by the guild. Nor was there a single guild to mark it, for furniture was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized into different furniture makers' guilds. There was never a single guild of furniture makers, for furniture was produced by differently trained craftsmen, who were organized into different guilds. The oldest guilds were the Companies of Carpenters and of Joiners, though the Turners were also important. From the 1660s, however, the furniture industry was dominated by the Joiners and Upholders (upholsterers).

The history of the Guild of Carpenters can be traced back to 1333, at which time it organized all workers in wood. There was then no distinction between builders of houses, farm implements, furniture, coffins and anything else made of timber. The Guild of Joiners was established in 1375, and for the next two or three centuries, disputes between the two were frequent, and occasionally, bloody.


sheraton cabinetIn 1440 the Mystery of the Joyners of the City of London was allowed to elect two wardens with powers of search in the city, and in 1613, in London, the Lord Mayor gave to the Company of Joiners the exclusive power of search over makers of cupboards, trunks and boxes, a ruling that began the eventual the victory of the Joiners over the Carpenters. In 1632, the Court of Aldermen, in an attempt to end once and for all the arguments between the two trades, decreed that from that time onwards, the joiners alone should be entitled to make:

    • All sorts of Bedsteads whatsoever (onlie except boarded bedsteads and nailed together).
    • All sorts of chayres and stooles which are made with mortesses and tennants.
    • All tables of wainscotte walnutt or other stuffe glewed with frames mortesses or tennants.
    • All sorts of formes framed made of boards with the sides pinned or glewed.
    • All sorts of chests being framed dufftailed pynned or glewed.
    • All sorts of Cabinets or Boxes dufftailed pynned or glewed.

This ruling codified the practice that had emerged, at least in the towns and boroughs, that the joiners made the furniture, and the carpenters made almost everything else. Possibly, the carpenters still made boarded and nailed chests, like the beds that were specifically excluded from the joiners' responsibility (boards nailed together did not involve joinery).

The main provincial cities had their own guilds, and we may presume that they organized the woodworkers' trades in much the same way as London. In rural areas, however, the towns had no jurisdiction, so carpentry and joinery were often the responsibility of the same person. Indeed, estate records of the period show that oftentimes the estate carpenter made the furniture for the great house.

The Joiners had the political savvy to incorporate potential competitors rather than exclude them: carvers, box-makers and, most importantly, Cabinet-Makers all became members of the Joiners Company.

The Carvers were specialist artisans who formed a distinct group within the Joiners Company. They worked with joiners and chair-makers to decorate furniture, and worked on their own to produce frames for pictures and mirrors. They were, in effect, an early kind of subcontractor.

The Box Makers were another distinct group of artisans within the Joiners Company. In the 17th century, their skill lay in carving rather than joinery, but during the 18th their trade developed into miniature cabinet-making of the highest artistry, particularly in the production of tea caddies.


cabinet makers bookThe term "Cabinet-Maker" came into regular use during the reign of Charles II, and was a sign of the new taste for luxury. The Cabinet-Maker provided case furniture, tables and stands, whereas the joiner made chairs, stools and beds. Sometimes the difference between them is described in terms of the joints that each used most frequently -- the dovetail for the Cabinet-Maker, and the mortise and tenon for the joiner. Cabinet-making produced case pieces with flat surfaces that were suitable for the newly fashionable veneering.

In 1660 there was a small group of specialist Cabinet-Makers in London, but by 1700 they had been subsumed into the Joiners, and Joiners had learned cabinet-making. In 1700 the Joiners Company claimed that its members were "bred up in the Art or Mystery of making Cabinets, Scrutores (desks), Tables, Chests and all other sorts of CABINET-WORK in England, which of late Years they have arrived at so great a perfection as exceeds all Europe."

Any distinction between cabinet-making and joinery rapidly diminished, and the term "Cabinet-Maker" displaced "Joiner" as the regular name for the producer of furniture. In 1747, the General Description of all Trades gives an idea of cabinet-makers' prosperity and status: "Many of their Shops are so richly set out that they look more like Palaces, and their stocks are of exceeding great value." In 1803 Sheraton wrote that cabinet-making was "one of the leading mechanical professions in every polite nation in Europe."

Upholders (Upholsterers)

hepplewhite sofaThe Upholders' Guild is another that began in the fifteenth century, but it was not until the Restoration of Charles II that it gained social status and power. Charles spent the Cromwellian period in exile in the French court, and when he returned he brought with him a taste for luxury that was new to English society. He appointed Robert Morris to be the King's Upholsterer, and in a mere 21 months spent 10,000 pounds (approximately $13,800,000 in today's prices) with him. From this date on, the upholsterers never looked back, and by the middle of the 18th century were one of the most powerful bodies in furniture making. The London Tradesman, published in 1747, describes the upholsterer as one who "was originally a species of Taylor, but by degrees has crept over his head, and set up as a Connoisseur over every article that belongs to a House. He employed journeymen in his own proper calling, cabinet-makers, glass-grinders, looking-glass framers, carvers for chairs, testers and posts for beds, ….." Descriptions such as this suggest that the Upholders were becoming what today we would call "interior designers."

The Upholders had had to fight for their success. In the 1660s, the East India Company imported large quantities of rattan cane, and cane chairs became the fashionable rage. They were promoted for their "Durableness, Lightness and Cleanness from Dust, Worms and Moths," and they were cheaper than upholstered chairs. The Upholders, supported by the woolen cloth makers, petitioned Parliament to ban the manufacture of cane chairs. They failed, but continued to compete successfully with the chair caners, who allied themselves with the Joiners. Much was at stake. In the 1690s London produced about 190,000 chairs upholstered in woolen Turkey work and about 72,000 caned chairs per annum. Between a third and a half of these were exported to the Continent and America.

The Weavers were powerful allies for the Upholders. Cloth and drapery were costly and of high social status. In 17th and early 18th century households the most expensive furnishings were the hangings for the master bed. The wealth of Medieval England, which was considerable, was built largely upon the wool industry. English cloth was widely exported across the continent and across the Atlantic. The spinning and weaving of cloth was a labour-intensive cottage industry in hundreds of English villages and towns. It is hardly surprising that the spinning Jenny and the power loom were the first machines of the Industrial Revolution.


Labour and Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter IX

An investigation into the working conditions in the Upholstery Industry

Friday, November 16, 1849

bric a brac shopI have lately devoted myself to investigating the incomings and condition of the Needlewomen of London generally. My object is, in the first place, to obtain an authentic list of the prices paid to the different artisans and labourers throughout the metropolis. It is curious that this should remain undone, and even untried, to the present day.

I was referred to a person living in a court running out of Holborn, who was willing to give me the information I desired respecting the prices paid to the female hands engaged in the upholstery business. Her room was neatly furnished, and gave evidence of her calling. Before the windows were chintz curtains tastefully arranged, and in one corner of the room stood a small easy chair with a clean brown holland case over it. On a side table were ranged large fragments of crystal and spar upon knitted mats or d'oyleys, and over the carpet was a clean grey crumb cloth - indeed, all was as neat and tasty as a person of limited means, and following such an employment, could possibly make it.

The person herself was as far above the ordinary character of workwomen, both in manner and appearance, as her home was superior to the usual run of untidy and tasteless dwellings belonging to the operatives. I found her very ready to answer all my questions.

 "I am a widow," she said. "I have been so for five years. My husband was an upholsterer. I was left with one child twelve years old. My husband was in considerable difficulty when he died. Since his death I have got my living by working with my needle at the upholstery business. I make up curtains and carpets, and all sorts of cases, such as those for covering the furniture in drawing- rooms. I also make up the bed furniture, and feather beds and mattresses as well. My present employer pays me for making up window curtains 2s. per pair. I have nothing to find. Upon an average I can make a pair of curtains in two days. I might do more of the plainer kind; but if the curtains are gimped, I shall do less. Taking one with the other, I can safely say I can make a pair of curtains in two days. It is impossible for me to give an estimate as to the cases, because furniture is of such various descriptions.

We generally charge such things by the time they take us. It is the envelope that goes over the article of furniture, and protects the silk or satin that the chair, sofa, or ottoman may be covered with, that I call the case. These cases or overalls are generally of chintz or holland, and are made by females, and sewn together. The satin or damask cover of the furniture itself is nailed on, and made by male hands.

By working at cases for twelve hours, I can make about 1s. 6d. a day. I do my work always at home. There are some shops send their work out, but the generality have it done at the shop. The wages given to the workwomen at the shop are from 9s. to 11s. per week, and the time of labour is twelve hours per day. I don't think any house gives less than 9s. to any one who understands the business, and 11s. I believe is the highest price to the workwomen in the upholstery business. Fore-women who hold responsible situations of course get more - they get 12s. a week.

For the making of cases we who work at home are paid by time and not by piece-work. The rate is 1d, per hour. The general price that I am paid for sofa cases comes to 2s. each, and about 3s. if I cut them out - that's a fair average. Easy-chair cases I think I get about 1s. 6d. for making, and 2s. 6d. each if I cut them out. Ottoman cases vary much in point of size. I don't suppose even a very large ottoman case would exceed 1s. 6d.; there's less work in it. A small box ottoman for the centre of a room, I think I should get about 5d. for. I can earn about 1s. 6d. a day at case work. For his carpets my employer pays 1d. per yard for sewing, but I find the thread. Indeed, I find the thread for everything I make, but that does not generally come to much. Carpet thread is a little more expensive. The thread for a carpet of 50 yards will cost about 4d. I can do about 25 yards a day at carpet work, but it's very hard work. Mattress cases are from 6d. each up to 1s., according to the sizes. Bed ticks are from 8d. up to 1s. 2d., according to size. Pillow ticks are ld., and bolsters 2d. Window blinds are 3d. each, making. Bed furniture is 10s. for a four-post bed. Arabians generally about 4s. French beds are from 2s. 6d. to 3s. I don't think there is anything else in our line of business worth mentioning.

If I were fully employed, I could earn about 12s. a week, but a good deal of that arises from my having been in business for myself. An ordinary hand in the trade would, if she could get enough to do, make about 10s. a week. Those who do the work at home are seldom more than half their time employed, and those who work in the shops are discharged immediately a slack occurs.

There is more fluctuation in the upholstery business than in any other in London. It used not to be so; but of late years it has fluctuated extremely, from the competition in the trade. The linen-drapers have taken to supply furniture ready-made. There are many large houses who do a great trade in this way, and they sell at prices that the others cannot compete with. I think the slacks are in consequence of the times and the general want of money. You see, persons can do without furniture when they run short, whereas they must have other commodities. At one time I received from 10s. to 14s. weekly for my labour. I have had so much work that I have been obliged to have assistance to get it done in time. The upholstery line is a business of great pressure. Five years back I made about 9s. a week upon an average throughout the year; but latterly the work has become so slack that for the last two years I have not earned 4s. a week, taking one week with another; and for this last month my earnings have been nothing at all. I haven't had a stitch to do from my employer. My earnings for this last year have been so trifling that I have been obliged to do many things I never did before.

I have gone back dreadfully. I have been obliged to pledge my things, and borrow money to make up sums that must be paid. I must keep a home above my head. If it hadn't been for the Queen's intended visit to the Coal Exchange, I don't know what I should have done. It was a little bit of help to me; but, at the same time, it doesn't free me from my difficulties. Still it came like a Providence to me. I got about 35s. for what I did there. I was at work all Sunday. I was between a fortnight and three weeks engaged upon it. But I was not paid equal to what I did.

I don't tell my affairs to everybody. It's quite enough for me to struggle by myself. I may feel a great many privations that I do not wish to be known. I got about 35s. in three weeks, and for that I had to work from eight in the morning till ten at night, and one entire Sunday.

My present employer is not in the cheap trade. He is about a second-rate upholsterer. He pays to his workpeople the ordinary prices of the trade, neither above, nor below, and is, I think, a fair-dealing man. When I have assistance, I pay 1s. 6d. a day to those persons whom I employ. These, if active hands, might earn me as much as 1s. 9d. in the day. You see, the upholstery work is always in a drive. There is never any regularity about it. It must be done by a certain time, or the order would be countermanded. The female hands employed in the business are generally middle-aged people; there are not many young people employed in it. A great many are widows, but the majority are old maids. I do believe there are more old maids employed in the upholstery business than in any other. They are generally sober steady people; in fact, they wouldn't suit if they were not. The principal part is upon very expensive materials - silk, satin, and velvets - so that it requires great care and nicety.

I think there are a great many - yes, hundreds - at the present time out of employment. You see, the cholera frightened families away from London, and there was no orders left to be done, or anything. But just now, the gentlefolks are returning to town, and business is reviving slightly at the West-end. Last summer the trade was no better than it has been this. It was very bad. The last two years have been dreadful years of business in the upholstery line. The trade is so divided, that there ought to be employment all the year round; indeed, it was so formerly. There were very few fluctuations then. I speak from twenty years' experience of the business.

clothes shopIn the winter time, when families were in town, there was general employment, owing to the fashions altering as much in upholstery as they do in dress; and when the families at the West-end left London in the summer, they usually gave orders to the upholsterer to have their houses beautified and the furniture done up in their absence. But for the last two years this has greatly decreased. Where there has been one house redecorated there have been thirty shut up. Eaton-square, Grosvenor-square, and all those that I have had a great deal of employment from, have all been shut up; there has been nothing done. This has been the cause of a great deal of distress in the trade. I know of many cases of distress in my own circle.

The prices paid to the workpeople have decreased materially within the last five years, to the extent of one-half in bed furniture. We are now paid 10s. for making up the furniture of a four-post bedstead, and formerly we used to have 1 for the very same thing. The wages of the women working in the shops were 12s. a week till lately; now they are mostly 9s., though some are 11s. Window curtains (plain) used to be 5s. per pair; now we have 2s.; and the price paid for making up the other articles has decreased in very nearly the same proportion. I don't know the cause of this, unless it be that there is less work to be done in the trade. I don't think it arises from an increase of hands, but from a decrease of work. The slacks occur much more often now than they did formerly. I think the hands are out of employ now one-third of their time throughout the year, there's such very great fluctuation in the business."

As corroborative of the distress of the upholsteress, I saw several duplicates for articles of clothing and bedding, mostly pledged within the present year: a few shillings had been raised upon some things last year; but these had been lost, owing to her inability to redeem them. She was highly spoken of by her friends and neighbours.

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