Peek Through Time: Michigan Seating Co. made outdoor furniture that was … – The Jackson Citizen Patriot
By Leanne SmithApril 10, 2010, 9:02AMPHOTO COURTESY OF ELLA SHARP MUSEUM OF ART & HISTORYThe Michigan Seating Co. moved to Jackson from Grand Rapids in 1909. Its final Jackson location was this building on Wildwood Avenue.It’s that time of year when everyone is eager to dust off the patio furniture, get outside and use it whenever possible.
It was no different in the early 1900s, when the most fashionable porches, sun rooms and verandas in the country featured innovative outdoor furniture made in Jackson.
Kaltex was “a new class of goods” from the Michigan Seating Co. that used woven paper and hemp in smooth, comfortable faux-wicker furniture that didn’t catch or tear light summer fabrics.
It was “hand-woven furniture with a heart of steel,” because of its “tough, tenacious fiber” attached to strong steel frames that were “practically indestructible,” the company said.
The finish, which came in Indian red, crimson, light brown, sea green and grass green, also did not “scratch, splinter or show the effects of hard use or time.”
“It is pretty fabulous, and the pieces we see today are still in remarkable condition,” said Judy Horn, the Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History’s collections manager. “Kaltex is one of Jackson’s unique products.”
The Michigan Seating Co. that created Kaltex is not the Michigan Seat Co. on Brooklyn Road that still makes seats for lawn mowers and agricultural, industrial and off-road equipment.
Instead, it was formed in Grand Rapids in 1907 by H. G. Morse, A. D. McBurney and H. L. Hitchcock, who struck out on their own from the then well-known and highly respected Ford & Johnson Chair Co. of Michigan City, Ind.
The first showing of its Kaltex settees, chaise lounges, rockers, chairs, tables, flower stands, swings, magazine racks and other novel pieces occurred in January 1908.
They were an immediate hit.
Ford & Johnson had used prison labor to make its furniture, so when the Michigan Seating founders learned they could do the same thing here, they moved to Jackson in 1909 and set up shop at the Michigan State Prison.
While Kaltex furniture was touted for sun rooms, front parlors and open verandas, the company also said its “gay and brilliant” fabric cushions made it perfect for guest rooms, bedrooms, living rooms, dens and libraries.
Kaltex production peaked in 1914.
When Michigan Seating’s contract for 200 prison laborers expired in 1916, it was one of the last local companies still using inmate labor. Soon after, the company moved into the old Imperial Automobile Co. at 209 E. Washington St. A new factory was built there around 1923.
The company moved into the former Schmid Chemical Co., 1316 Wildwood Ave., in 1932. By 1937, it had 160 employees and annual revenue of $600,000.
Michigan Seating discontinued the line in 1934 after the fiber furniture fad had run its course and transferred the Kaltex name to a line of metal outdoor furniture.
Jackson’s Jim Zuleski, the Ella Sharp Museum’s former director of collections and exhibits, and his wife found a piece at a garage sale.
“It’s the same quality,” Zuleski said. “When you sit on the seat, steel springs give and make it so comfortable you don’t need a cushion.”
Leading furniture and department stores, including Marshall Field & Co. of Chicago, J.L. Hudson Co. of Detroit and Lord & Taylor of New York, carried its products.
After World War II, demand for Michigan Seating furniture rapidly increased and the factory, according to the Citizen Patriot, was training workers as fast as it could.
B.L. Davies, president and general manager, soon grew disappointed with his workers’ craftsmanship, though, saying in a 1955 Citizen Patriot article, “It has been apparent for several years that a furniture factory has no place in a strictly metal-working town.”
Michigan Seating liquidated in 1955, moved back to Grand Rapids and converted solely to a sales and distribution company. It filed for bankruptcy in 1962 with debts totaling nearly $95,000 and assets of $17,000.
A few more facts
• The Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History, 3225 Fourth St., has a few pieces of the Michigan Seating Co.’s Kaltex furniture in its collection. They include a desk and small chair donated by the family of local department store giant L.H. Field. Anyone with questions about identifying Kaltex furniture can call the museum at 787-2320.
• Built in 1912 to house pharmaceutical manufacturer O.F. Schmid Chemical Co., the Michigan Seating Co.’s final Jackson location at 1316 Wildwood Ave. also was once home to other businesses. Those included Commonwealth Power Co. of Michigan, the Indian Refining Co., a dry cleaners operated by Charles E. Riggs: a refrigerator-engine plant owned by Lawrence Priskey; Thorrez & Maes Manufacturing Co.; S.H. Camp & Co.; and Handley Brown Heater Co.
• Shaw’s Furniture also moved into the Schmid Chemical Co. building in 1958. It originally opened on April 10, 1937, as Kimerly-Shaw Inc. at 1206 W. Michigan Ave. downtown. B.L. Davies, head of Michigan Seating Co., was its president. Vice President H.E. Shaw formerly worked in Michigan Seating’s service department. Shaw’s Furniture closed in 2007.
• Michigan Seating cut its furniture manufacturing by two-thirds in 1943 and shifted its efforts to World War II production. It mounted and balanced 56-inch tires on bomber wheels that were made in Jackson by Hayes Industries. Up to six train carloads of assembled wheels rolled out of the plant each day during the war. The workforce to do this was 40 percent female.
• Harold D. Miller obtained the Schmid building in 1957 through a property exchange with Michigan Seating and moved the Jackson Paper Box Co. into the structure. The former box company building at 110 W. Pearl St. — which had also housed the former Citizen-Press newspaper, Gilbert Chocolate Co., Thorpe Candy Co. and Trenton Garment Co.— was leased out by Michigan Seating.
• Michigan Seating also occupied the old Imperial Automobile Co. building at 209 E. Washington St. and a building just east of it that housed the Jackson Soap Co. and Brown, Davis and Warner Wholesale Grocery. It sold these buildings to Timken Detroit Axle Co. in 1945. Tenants at the time included Lee & Cady Wholesale Grocers, Handley-Brown Manufacturing Co., Jackson Manufacturing Co., Rayton Corp., Simplicity Pattern Co., Viking Manufacturing Co., Peninsular Manufacturing Co. and Uni-Pak Bottling. Timken sold the building to Commonwealth Associates Inc. in 1955.
Filed under: Outdoor Wicker News
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