Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago

1856-1954

Founded in 1856, the Toby Furniture Company became a leader in handmade furniture production by the last decade of the nineteenth century. General manager George Clingman hired Joseph Twyman, an Englishman, in 1896. Twyman had been a designer for William Morris and worked extensively in the Arts & Crafts style. By 1902 the company, working with Twyman, had established a "William Morris Room" or line of Arts & Crafts goods that included new Toby designs for furniture and accessories as well as textiles and wallpapers by Morris. In the next year, 1903, Toby introduced a line of Mission furniture as well. In 1903 Twyman founded The William Morris Society in Chicago. Ed.

Janna Barron (reprinted with the author's permission)

Tobey Furniture Ad

The Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago, Illinois was founded in 1856 by Charles Tobey only about a year after he left Boston for the Windy City to sell furniture for a Boston company that would soon go bankrupt. After selling off the Boston firm's merchandise, Charles and brother Frank Tobey opened up shop. The fledgling enterprise survived the Panic of 1857 and the three years of depression that ensued by buying out the stock of failing furniture stores.

The company continued to grow in the 1860s, doing quite well in the economic upswing that took place at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1865, the Tobey brothers joined forces with F. Porter Thayer. By 1868, the Thayer and Tobey partnership proved so successful that a new store was opened on Chicago's fashionable State Street. (1)

In part because of Charles Tobey's excellent salesmanship and persistence, Thayer and Tobey gained success filling large contracts for many of Chicago's newest hotels. They outfitted all of the Grand Pacific Hotel, as well as Sherman House and Tremont House. In addition, they produced furniture for some rooms in the Gardner and Palmer House (2) In 1875, the Tobey brothers bought out Thayer's, interest and continued under the name Tobey Furniture Company. (3)

In addition to the mission furniture the company would eventually become known for in the Arts and Crafts movement, Tobey Furniture Company also produced Louis XIV, XV, and XVI -style reproductions and, beginning in 1901, Art Nouveau furniture. The Art Nouveau designs "echoed the exuberant curvilinear lines and organic forms embodied in the distinctive (Art Nouveau) furniture then being shown in France and Belgium" (4) By the mid 1920s, the company was producing French Art Moderne pieces. It also manufactured and sold tall case clocks. In addition to its own lines, Tobey Furniture sold furniture from over 200 manufacturers from the U.S. and around the world. (5)

Apparently able to survive the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and both World Wars, but not the Baby Boom and rock and roll, Tobey Furniture ceased operations in 1954 (6).

Tobey's Mission Furniture

Tobey was among the first U.S. retailers to "aggressively market factory-made Arts and Crafts furniture using modern advertising techniques and brand name recognition." Beginning in 1898, the company bought advertising in newspapers and women's' magazines. Advertisements placed emphasis on Tobey Hand-Made Furniture's simple lines, quality wood, and "careful workmanship." They pointed out that "no veneers, no machine carving or stamped ornaments" were used in its construction. Targeting the American middle class, Tobey would become Chicago's foremost retailer of Arts and Crafts furniture (7).

Two years later, in the spring of 1900, Tobey introduced a collection of mission furniture, designed by George Clingman, was introduced to the public. It was advertised as "an unconventional style for unconventional people, admirable suited to rest and sunshine" to a nation ready to take on the new century (8).

The Clingman collection set the stage for the New Furniture collection, designed by Gustav Stickley, that Tobey debuted in October 1900.

The New Furniture was a collection of about 75 oak pieces that included tables, chairs, settees, tabourettes, and desks that came in three stains (Tyrolean green, gun metal gray, and grayish brown "Weathered Oak"), all with a dull wax finish. Some of the chairs had rush seats. Others had cushions of loose leather or Spanish leather, held in place with big oxidized nails. Some of the collection were clearly inspired by contemporary Scottish and English furniture designers; others were obviously inspired by pieces found in California's missions (9).

Moderately priced, its intended audience was "practical modern-thinking consumers in the new century" (10) Stickley's intent was to come up with original designs that did not emulate traditional and historical designs. The designs executed had a distinct lack of curves and ornamentation. Stickley showed the same collection in his own company's catalogue (11).

Unhappy with the relationship, in part because of a "reluctance to be relegated to the role of anonymous supplier," Stickley would break ties with Tobey Furniture at the end of 1900 (12)

In 1901, Tobey introduced its own line of New Furniture. Probably designed by Clingman, the New Furniture in Weathered Oak collection consisted of chairs, settees, book cases, tall case clocks, and humidors. Woods used in the collection were oak, ash, and mahogany. Manufactured in the Tobey factory, pieces were stained in shades evocative of forests and fields. With the exception of some book cases and cabinets, the New Furniture in Weathered Oak line was free of ornamentation (13).

Also new in 1901 was the Tobey Chair. Patented by Clingman (who was chief buyer and manager as well as designer (14), the piece was a streamlined version of the adjustable Morris chair. It had a sliding seat with an adjustable back (15).

In the summer of 1902, Tobey introduced the Russmore line. The Russmore line was an affordable line of "rectilinear furniture" designed to meet the demand for fashionable yet durable furniture. The line was dark brown in color and had a deep sheen instead of a dull wax finish (16).

Despite manufacturing a variety of styles, the Tobey Furniture seems to be best remembered for its contribution to the Arts and Crafts style.


Footnotes

1. Sharon Darling, Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft, and Industry 1833-1983 (New York: Chicago Historical Society, 1984) 23.

2. Ibid. 23.

3. Marsha Melnick and Susan E. Meyer, Nineteenth Century Furniture: Innovation, Revival, and Reform (New York: Art and Antiques, 1982) 93.

4. Darling. 194.

5. Ibid. 239.

6. From the World Wide Web: www.ragtime.org/ragtime/M/HGA.html and http://www.arts-crafts.com/archive/companies.shtml.

7. Darling. 233.

8. Ibid. 234.

9. Ibid. 234.

10. Ibid. 234.

11. Ibid. 233.

12. David M. Cathers, Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement: Stickley and Roycroft Mission Oak (New York: New American Library Books, 1981) 38.

13. Darling. 239.

14. Ibid. 187, 235.

15. Ibid. 240

16. Ibid. 240.


Bibliography

The Arts and Craft Society Website. "The Arts and Crafts Movement: Companies" web page. http://www.arts-crafts.com/archive/companies.shtml.

Cathers, David M. The Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement:Stickley and Roycroft Mission Oak. New American Library Books: New York 1981.

Darling, Sharon. Chicago Furniture: Art, Craft, and Industry, 1833-1983. Chicago Historical Society in association with W.W. Norton and Co.: New York 1984.

Melnick, Marsha and Susan E. Meyer. Nineteenth Century Furniture: Innovation, Revival, and Reform. Arts and Antiques: New York 1982.

Otto, Celia Jackson. American Furniture of the Nineteenth Century. The Viking Press: New York 1965.

Ragtime website. "On-Line Arts and Crafts Movement Resource Directory: Historic Manufacturers of the Arts and Crafts Movement" web page. http://www.ragtime.org/ragtime/M/HGA.html.

Books

Furniture of the Arts & Crafts Period




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