written by John Wall
published by Wakefield 350, 1994, Copyright
The history of the Wakefield Rattan Company and its successor, the Heywood-Wakefield Company is a story told in two parts. Part I is the rags-to-riches tale of Cyrus Wakefield, a poor New Hampshire farm boy who built a part-time industrial refuse business into no less than four multi-million dollar empires, in East Indies spices, Boston real estate, railroads, and the rattan goods business. Part II of the story begins in 1873 with Wakefield’s death and traces the merger, rise and fall of a corporate conglomerate, the town’s largest employer for decades, and its demise during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
The origins of the Wakefield Rattan Company can be traced to 1836 and the firm of Wakefield and Company, a Boston grocery business formed by the partnership of two young men from Roxbury, New Hampshire, Cyrus Wakefield and his younger brother Enoch. Located on Boston’s busy waterfront, the elder Wakefield kept a watchful eye out for occasional business opportunities in commercial refuse and cast-off materials. Scavenging commercial refuse was one of the few ways a young person could, without borrowing, gather the capital necessary to start one’s own business. As a young Boston grocery clerk in the late 1820’s and early 30’s, Cyrus Wakefield is reported to have worked an after-hours, second job as an independent jobber, reselling cast off wooden barrels and casks. He continued this activity even after he had established himself in the grocery business.
Sources are unclear on the date, but probably in the early 1830’s, Wakefield got his start in the rattan business when he “accidentally purchased” a small lot of rattan which had been discarded on a Boston wharf by a sailing ship which had used it for packing its cargo on a voyage from the South Pacific.
Dr. Jeremy Adamson’s book, American Wicker, Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930, documents the history of wicker and rattan furniture, and provides the following definition of rattan and its by-products: Rattan is the stem or trunk of a climbing palm, genus Calamus, which grows in Malaya, India, China and other south Asian countries. When the outer bark is removed and the vine dried, what remains is the hard inner shell, the rattan. Tim Scott’s Fine Wicker Furniture, 1870 – 1930 notes that after the bark has been removed from the vine, an inner by-product, called reed, remains. Like rattan, reed can be bent and shaped by hand. But while reed is very porous and can be stained rattan is hard, resists staining, and does not take paint well. When the rattan is split into flat strips, the remaining product is called cane, commonly found in woven chair backs and seats.
Wakefield then sold his rattan at a profit to several local shops in the business of hand-making reed and rattan chairs. “The favorable purchase led to others until business improved to the point where (in 1844) Cyrus Wakefield dissolved the grocery partnership with his brother, and opened an office at the corner of Commercial and Cross Streets in Boston.” It is likely that this “office” was opened well before 1844, and was in fact the start-up location of what would eventually become the Wakefield Rattan Company. Indeed, Adamson reports that Stimson’s Boston Directory of 1843 lists Cyrus Wakefield for the first time at a new address, 15 Commercial Street working as a “Commission Merchant”. His brother Enoch is listed as the sole proprietor of Wakefield and Company.
Founded specifically to carry on the trade of buying and reselling the rattan lots discarded on Boston docks by visiting cargo ships, the Wakefield Rattan Company prospered by satisfying an increasing demand for rattan among local furniture makers. Wakefield was soon to learn however that after purchasing his raw rattan, his tradesmen-customers incurred sizable labor costs because of the need to split the long rattan stems by hand. Only in this manner could chair makers obtain the clean outer shell from which chairs were made. Sensing another business opportunity, Wakefield turned to his family for support.
In 1841, he married Eliza Bancroft of Lynnfield, Massachusetts. The daughter of Henry Bancroft, a former sea captain, Eliza’s family was active in the China trade. One of her brothers worked for the “house of Messrs. Russell and Company of Canton, China” Cyrus Wakefield sent his brother-in-law samples of the cane in highest demand, no doubt inquiring as to the cost of having the rattan split in Canton with lower cost Chinese labor. Eaton’s Genealogical History tells us that “In a few years, his importations of Canton Split Rattan were known throughout the United States.”
Cyrus Wakefield had a second major success also around this time when he succeeded in buying up the complete supply of rattan in New York. By good fortune, he was able to acquire this rattan at a greatly depressed price, and ultimately resell it at a considerable profit in a marketplace which, by this time, he monopolized. Although it is not known exactly when this occurred, it is possible that it may have been as early as 1841-42, when the Opium War in China closed off, much of the trade in imported split rattan.
This “fortunate speculation” is of great significance in the history of the Wakefield Rattan Company since it gave Cyrus Wakefield the capital to completely alter the business scope of the firm, to change it from a reseller and importer of raw materials to a manufacturer of finished products. With the capital from the New York speculation, Wakefield opened his first factory in the old Wakefield Building on Canal Street in Boston.
As did many other entrepreneurs of the day, Wakefield realized that he could not successfully enter the business using the manual processes of the past. He therefore set about establishing a modern, machine-based production capability. At that time, the American Rattan Company of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was the only company using machinery to split rattan products. Wakefield was very familiar with this firm; it appears to have been one of his main customers for the Malayan and Chinese rattan he was importing. Undoubtedly, he followed their example in setting up a small operation on Canal Street with two, crude, hand-operated machines.
Ever seeking market advantage and innovation, he sought to not only automate his processes by machinery but to develop uses for the other parts of rattan cane, the pith and shavings, most of which were then being discarded. With the financial credit and business prestige that came from controlling the market in rattan, his business soon grew to the point where he had to leave Boston.
With a view to the future, Cyrus Wakefield began buying property in the center of nearby South Reading, the present day Wakefield. In 1851, he established his home on land now occupied by the Galvin Junior High School and the Americal Civic Center. He resold a portion of his other properties to businesses in which he had an interest, including real estate, banking and utilities. One such company was the Boston and Maine Foundry, established in 1855 on the east side of what is still called Foundry Street. This firm later became the Smith and Anthony stove works.
With demand for his rattan products increasing, Wakefield used some of his capital to expand his production capacity and relocate his factory in South Reading in 1855. The property chosen for the plant was on “Mill River”, a brook just off the present Water Street. This stream ran from Crystal Lake eastward under Main Street, later to enter the Saugus River. The property and mill privilege had been known in the early history of South Reading as “Green’s Mill”.
At the time of Wakefield’s purchase, the property consisted of two ponds, one on either side of Water Street, a few small buildings which had been used for manufacturing, and the old Green family home. The mill, ponds and river were extremely important for the fledgling Rattan Company since they allowed the production line to leap a generation of technology forward, from hand-driven to mill water-driven machinery. Steam power was soon added.
The company began its South Reading operation in 1855 by making baskets and the skirt hoops popular in that day. The actual manufacturing occurred in a wood frame building which had been part of the mill property. Soon after, the Company began directly competing with the American Rattan Company when it began producing woven cane chair seats. This had to be something of risk to Wakefield since the American Rattan Company seems to have been one of the largest customers for his imported rattan.
Lilley Eaton, in his 1874 history, reported that Wakefield inexplicably entered this competition by making cane seats by hand. Foreseeing disaster if he did not mechanize this process, Cyrus Wakefield himself apparently came up with the designs for the needed machines. The Wakefield Rattan Company eventually proved the victor in this competition when it bought out the American Rattan Company in 1875, closed it down within a few years, and moved its equipment to Wakefield.
The Rattan Company continued to prosper in the post-Civil War years. By 1860, town tax records reveal that the Wakefield Rattan Company’s factory consisted of five large buildings valued at around $7000. The manufacturing schedules of the U.S. Census of 1860 provide even more detail. By this time, Wakefield had invested over $75,000 in capital assets, mainly equipment; raw material of 300 tons of rattan was worth over $30,000. A modest 24-horse power steam engine supplemented the water power of the mill ponds. A total of 75 people were employed: 5 men and 20 women. In addition to baskets and mats, the 1860 production of the Wakefield Rattan Company produced 1,328,00 skirt hoops. More important, the Census Records show that Wakefield had surpassed the Emerson Shoe Factory as the firm with the largest capital investment in South Reading.
By 1863, the number of hands employed had increased to 200, increasing gradually to in excess of 1000 in 1873. At that time, the Rattan Company’s facilities had grown to include one brick machine shop of four stories, eight large workshops and warehouses and a number of smaller buildings occupying about four acres. The power for the facility by now had almost certainly been completely converted to steam since there were two large steam engines of 250 horse power each on the grounds.
The Rattan Company’s total dependence on rattan reed and cane imported from the far east made the firm heavily reliant on commercial shipping. Eventually, Wakefield decided to buy his own ships to handle rattan cargoes. Since rattan was an exceedingly light commodity, however, he needed other cargo to provide ballast to stabilize the ship during its voyage. In this way, Wakefield got into what his advertisements called “Straits Goods” business: tea and spices from Malaya and the East Indies. At his death in 1873, Cyrus Wakefield was the largest importer of this type of goods in Boston.
By using his own vessels, Wakefield’s Rattan Company was able to save over $200,000 per year. For reasons not yet known, however, when Wakefield died in 1873, he and the Rattan Company were no longer owners of their own shipping. Although Wakefield’s estate papers indicate that on the day he died, he had rattan and spice cargoes at sea on over twenty vessels, he did not, at least directly, own any of the vessels.
At some point after he started rattan manufacturing in South Reading, Cyrus Wakefield also got into “woodenware.” Since neither Cyrus Wakefield nor the Wakefield Rattan Company were known to have had manufacturing facilities outside of South Reading, it is assumed that these household products were also made on the grounds of the Rattan Company. Unlike rattan goods, however, Wakefield’s venture into “woodenware” products was aimed mainly at export to Europe and primarily to Great Britain. His efforts to penetrate the British market were so successful that the Liverpool Board of Trade petitioned Parliament to institute a high tariff against the Rattan Company’s woodenware products. By 1877, the date of the earliest surviving price lists, woodenware has disappeared from the inventory of the Wakefield Rattan Company.
Driven out of the European woodenware market, Wakefield turned his attention and that of his engineers to developing improved manufacturing processes to make use of all parts of the imported cane, not just the outer part. By the late 1860’s, town records indicate that the Wakefield Rattan Company was using not only the inner pith or reed but “the scrap shavings as well in baskets, furniture, carpets, mats and many other useful articles.”
Wakefield tax records for the year 1876 reveal that the Wakefield Rattan Company had grown to include 19 buildings valued at over $100,000.
At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, business was going so well for the Company that Wakefield sent “his nephew and namesake, Mr. Cyrus Wakefield 2nd, to Singapore, since which time (by 1874) they have imported nearly the whole stock of rattan for the country.”
By 1876, The Illustrated Wakefield Almanac for 1876 was reporting that the Wakefield Rattan Factory was “…the principal industry of Wakefield….twenty years ago established by Cyrus Wakefield who began the manufacture of rattan carpets and furniture in a small building on Water Street.” Now a thousand employees were employed, making “tables, chairs, carpets, curtains, mats, brooms, baskets, flower-stands, cradles and woodholders, all of rattan, every part of the cane now being utilized.”
Perhaps the most important message here is the range of products produced by the Company. Although the Wakefield Rattan Company’s most enduring and widely known products have always been its rattan and wicker furniture, the small amount of evidence available would seem to indicate that furniture items were not the firm’s leading products until the late 1870’s. Certainly, skirt hoops topped this list of products during the start-up years. Fortunately, Wakefield perceived the passing fashion of hoop skirts and was well prepared to “turn his attention to the manufacture of carpets and furniture.”
In the early 1870’s, when Eaton was writing his Genealogical History of Reading, he inserted in a section listing of the products manufactured by the Rattan Company at the time. This is the earliest known record of the furniture production of the Wakefield Rattan Company, specifically “chairs for ladies, gentlemen and children, cradle, cribs, tete-a-tete and sofas.” By way of contrast, the list also includes matting of all kinds, baskets of all kinds, seating cane for chairs, baby carriages, window shades, brooms, brushes, table mats, wall screens, fire screens, wall pockets, slipper holders, clothes beaters, as well as the rattan content of whips, umbrellas, saddles and corsets.
One of the factors which greatly contributed to the success of the Wakefield Rattan Company was no doubt Cyrus Wakefield’s ability to chose men of genius and intelligence as his key employees. Chief among these were his brilliant engineers, lead by Mr. Charles W. Trow, the master mechanic, and Mr. William Houston, for 40 years foreman of the Company’s mat and carpet department. These two men were responsible for developing the machinery and processes which for decades helped give the Wakefield Rattan Company its competitive edge.
In 1873, the country and the Wakefield Rattan Company underwent two severe shocks: the economic depression which started in 1872 and the sudden death of Cyrus Wakefield.
The depression was the result of enormous levels of corporate and private debt and large imbalances in international trade. These circumstances combined to cause the stock market crash of September 19, 1873. Adamson in his American Wicker, writes
The resulting depression, known as the Panic of ’73 was the most severe the country had experienced. A majority of American railroads declared bankruptcy, more than two thirds of our iron mills closed by 1877, and more than 18,000 businesses failed.
Up until this time, all of Cyrus Wakefield’s considerable properties, investments and businesses had been privately held. Just nine days before his death, however, Wakefield, on October 17, 1873, incorporated his rattan business only, under the name “Wakefield Rattan Company”. As sole owner of the business, Wakefield had no personal protection in an economic situation which had been rapidly deteriorating since the stock market crash a month earlier on September 19. The Wakefield Rattan Company Inc. was capitalized with $1,000,000, with Cyrus Wakefield himself being the principle owner of the great majority of the 1000 shares of outstanding stock. Less than ten shares were owned by others.
Nine days after he incorporated the Rattan Company, Cyrus Wakefield died suddenly of a heart attack. The timely incorporation of the Wakefield Rattan Company almost certainly saved hundreds of Wakefield jobs. It is now clear that had the Company not been incorporated, it would no doubt have been liquidated to pay Cyrus Wakefield’s considerable personal debts, a situation made doubly bad by the fact that Wakefield died without a will. Although it took twelve years to settle his affairs, all claims against the estate were eventually resolved by selling off Wakefield’s immense personal assets in furniture, spices, stock, and real estate. Fortunately for the town of Wakefield, which had just renamed itself in honor of its greatest benefactor and largest industry, the rattan business appears to have continued almost as usual.
For a number of years, the firm had Boston offices at 82 to 98 Canal Street and 173 to 177 Friend Street and a retail establishment at 115 Washington Street. In 1875, in the middle of the worst depression in history, the Rattan Company began to prepare for the recovery by opening new retail outlets in New York City. That year a store was opened on Broadway in New York City, soon followed by two wholesale establishments on Pearl and Cliff Streets. Two years later, a retail store was opened in Chicago together with a second factory employing over 400 people. Soon a second Illinois plant was started, this one 56 miles south of Chicago in the town of Kankakee. The coast-to-coast expansion of the corporation was completed shortly thereafter when both a factory and retail store were opened in San Francisco.
The growth and prosperity of the Wakefield Rattan Company was in part due to the Company’s participation in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Attended by nearly a quarter of the nation’s population, the Company could not have chosen a better time and location to show of its wares. Their extensive display featured everything from center tables to music stands. The timing of the exhibition could not have been better; large numbers of American middle class families were just beginning to move to suburban and country homes, creating a demand for informal furniture for porches, summer homes and even parlors.
Under new management and ownership, the Wakefield Rattan Company continued to expand its product lines in home and office furniture and furnishings. The single issue of the Wakefield newspaper “Our Town”, published in 1878 contained an advertisement in which “CANE FURNITURE” headed this list of products. By the standards of the 1890’s, the furniture content of the advertisement is rather small, but when compared to Eaton’s 1872 list, its shows a major change in the company’s manufacturing focus toward household products and furniture by the end of the decade. This has been confirmed by the discovery of a rare, pocket-sized 22 page Wakefield Rattan Company price list in the Heywood-Wakefield Company collection of the Levi Heywood Memorial Library in Gardner, Massachusetts. Dated June 1, 1877, the list details 255 rattan products, 75% of which fall into the category of furniture. The remaining products are the mainstay of the early product line, mats and various types of baskets. The basket line, however, had increased significantly and included some of the rarest of Wakefield Rattan Company products: their rattan “Scholar’s Lunch Baskets” in three sizes, rattan “church collection baskets”, an “infant’s walking stool on castors” and the curious “Gent’s toilet, lined, trimmed and mirror”.
At the death of Cyrus Wakefield, his nephew, Cyrus Wakefield 2nd, was called home from Singapore to assume the responsibilities of managing the company. There can be little doubt that since Cyrus 2nd knew the intricacies of the East Indies or “Straits Goods” business, his presence was badly needed in settling his uncle’s estate. Cyrus Wakefield 2nd had worked for the senior Wakefield since 1855, and had represented his uncle in Singapore since 1865. He was soon elected the new president of the Wakefield Rattan Company, a post which he held together with that of treasurer, alternating with Mr. Joseph B. Thomas. Wakefield himself passed away unexpectedly in 1888.
On the night of March 12 1881, the Wakefield Rattan Company lost most of its buildings, then mostly wood frame, in a huge fire, known for years in the local newspapers as the Great Rattan Company Fire. Losses of $190,000 were fully covered by insurance. Reconstruction took place immediately.
Following the death of Cyrus Wakefield 2nd, Charles H. Lang Jr. was elected director and manager of the company, specifically charged with the supervision and direction of the manufacture and sale of merchandise. The following year, at the annual meeting of 1889, the Board of Directors elected Mr. Lang treasurer. From that day forward, his was the guiding hand in the affairs of the Wakefield Rattan Company. By 1894, at the 250th anniversary of the founding of Reading and Wakefield, the Wakefield Rattan Company was “the largest business of its kind in the world.”
When Joseph Thomas died in 1891, Temple R. Fay, a member of the Board of Directors succeeded to the Company presidency. He held this post until 1897 when, in a merger with Heywood Brothers and Company and the Heywood and Morrill Rattan Company, the Wakefield Rattan Company ceased to exist as an independent firm. Throughout this era, Lang continued as general manager and treasurer of the firm, in day-to-day control of the company’s business.
Throughout these changes, the old Wakefield Rattan Company continued in profitable operation in its original Water Street facilities.
Around 1910, the ground work was being laid for the end of the rattan business in Wakefield. At that time, manufacturers began experimenting with alternate materials which could be woven and assembled into furniture with the look of rattan, reed and wicker.
Just as Cyrus Wakefield had sought a solution to expensive hand-splitting of rattan, others were now seeking ways to avoid having to import rattan at all. Paradoxically, the solution came from Marshall Burns Lloyd whose own company, the Lloyd Manufacturing Co. of Menominee, Michigan was acquired by Charles Lang in 1921. At that time, Lloyd and other manufacturers were experimenting with materials as diverse as prairie grass and paper. When Lloyd put man-made fibre on his most famous invention, the giant power loom, he was able to produce a large portion of the furniture product by machine. Although the Wakefield Rattan Company had been weaving cane webbing for chair bottoms since 1870, even into the twentieth century, rattan furniture still required significant hand-weaving.
In the early 1920’s, the market place in wicker and rattan furniture was depressed when a craze for Lloyd furniture broke out. By the late 20’s, although the Heywood-Wakefield Company too was making fibre furniture, it was the last major firm in America still weaving wicker furniture by hand. In 1929, the Company abandoned the practice altogether.
This decision, combined with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, resulted in retrenchment and plant consolidation within the Heywood-Wakefield Company. In 1930, the Company closed its Wakefield plant.
To the town of Wakefield, this meant the loss of hundreds of manufacturing jobs, some of which were moved with equipment to the Company’s main facilities in Gardner. Since then, the buildings have been part of various industrial parks, housing many small tenants. A major fire in 1972 destroyed all but three buildings of the original complex. Those still standing include the four storey reed furniture factory on the west, the three storey matting and rug factory on the east, and a small brick, varnish house. Two storeys of the original four storey chair factory, now much altered, also survived.
The final chapter on the Wakefield Rattan Company and its furniture was written in the summer of 1993 when the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. mounted an exhibition of rattan and wicker furniture. Of the 80 superb pieces on display, about 90% were made by the Wakefield Rattan Company or the Heywood Brothers Wakefield Company. Although the show was nationally acclaimed and resulted in a large, near record-breaking attendance, it passed without comment or notice in Wakefield.
Fortunately, the exhibition and its curator, Dr. Jeremy Adamson, produced a catalog and text of very high quality, American Wicker, Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930, (Rizzoli, New York, 1993). It is highly recommended to anyone interested in further, more in depth reading on Cyrus Wakefield, the Wakefield Rattan Company and American rattan and wicker furniture in particular.