Sunday, June 05, 2011

How to Make Furniture

The W. K. Cowan Furniture Company of Chicago, Illinois was in business from the years 1894 to 1916. William Kennett Cowan (no relation, or at least none this side of the year 1660) was known for the quality of his product. In the 1898 catalog, he set forth his philosophy, to-wit:

To govern production by excellence rather than expense;

to prefer simplicity;

to make use serve beauty and beauty usefulness;

to believe in goodness, abhor sham, make surroundings contribute to Life;

in short to conserve, even in the midst of commercial stress and strife, those eternal verities which make for advanced living;

these things are a part of the Ideal and the Working Plan of this Company.

Here was a man who obviously saw his trade in life as a noble calling. The furniture he created was intended to "make surroundings contribute to Life." I found it a bit jarring to read this and realize how antiquated such sentiments would seem to many today. I suspect most businessmen would laugh at a business plan that set out to "conserve...eternal verities." And that is to our shame.


Anonymous said...

There is a certain morality today which would argue that Mr. William Cowan was not only laughable, but actually sinful. You see, if economic exchange is good then the efficiency of that exchange is the means of achieving that good. All such deliberate positions seeking to thwart efficiency are axiomatically evil. Such persons are economic villains. Using their capital advantage to weaken the collective wealth-tide which should raise all ships (aka my ship).

Oh, I don't believe any of that rubbish, and I know most folks wouldn't say it that way; but it is the heart of their ethical fabric (both progressive and capitalist alike).

elizabeth said...

so many of wish for this to return; Lord help us.

stonephemera said...

This sort of ethos may be making a comeback (if it ever was truly gone), but very likely not in a really big way. However, the fact that William Cowen felt the need to make such a statement indicates that such morals were not common even in 1898. It is very likely that in Cowans industrial age, this sentiment may have felt even more antiquated that it does to you today. For similar statements being make today, take a look at (three of my interests) the straw-bale house movement (or other self-built home movements), Rivendell bikes, or the renewed interest in gardening and quality local food.

Owen White said...

The Arts & Crafts movement was huge in the England of Cowan's day, and the language here suggests he was almost certainly a disciple. See:

A beautiful text, John.

Milton T. Burton said...

I do everything I can to make each of my books the best that I can possibly make it. Where i fail, it is the failure of ability and not intent.

John said...

This is the way this all came about: My wife was scanning the want-ads in the Saturday paper and saw a listing for a "Cowan writing desk" in an estate sale ad. She asked me about it and I told her I had never heard of such a thing. My interest was peaked, so I did a bit of research online and learned about the company. I found it interesting that the piece was not described as an oak writing desk or a mahogany writing dest, but a Cowan writing desk. This may speak to the point made above that perhaps this ethos was unusual for that day as well--so much so that the maker's name stood out (and lived on) in connection with a particularly well-built piece of furniture.

And Stonephemera, I remember reading about straw-bale houses in the past. Do you have any links to good sites to read about this"

CG said...

You would probably also like the word of Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson of Kilburn - see

but I don't know whether he ever penned a similar manifesto. He was rather later though: 1930s.

Becky said...

My grandfather made furniture as a hobby, he'd have loved that text. My cherry dining table and sideboard that he made will long outlive me.