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My Weekly Post

Once Made in America

A few weeks ago, I saw a report on television on what is and what is not made in America. This show was about the furniture in our homes. The reporters went across the country, choosing random homes and families, and made a deal: you allow us to inspect everything in your house and remove anything not made in America and we’ll replace it with American-made items. The visual they gave us were high speed images of moving men removing the offending chairs, tables, lamps and vases – even appliances and, bingo, the house was empty. Even (and probably especially the appliances) had been taken out. Apparently they couldn’t find anyone with any American furniture in their homes because the stunning image was the site of a completely empty house once they had removed all the Chinese, Taiwanese and other pieces of Asian origin. This got me to thinking about my own home. I must say, I haven’t shopped for furniture very recently, in fact, almost never. I’ve bought a couch or two over the years but, other than that, my furniture came to me from my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents. What did not come to me from them I have purchased over the years from auctions, yard sales and thrift shops.

Let’s see how I would do: my kitchen stoves (I have two, one burns wood, the other uses gas) are from the 1920s and 1930s, made in Taunton, Massachusetts, by the venerable Glenwood stove company. My kitchen table came from a shop I used to like to pick through in Millers Falls, Massachusetts. It is oak, probably made at the turn of the (20th) century. I brought it home, my husband sanded it down and I applied a coat of polyurethane to make the top durable – and friends and family have gathered around this same table for more than thirty years. The chairs came from an auction house in Swanzey where I used to like to go on Tuesday nights. Even if I didn’t buy anything, I enjoyed the evening, watching the odd sewing machines, bureaus, bookcases go for various prices. All kinds of chairs were to be had for very reasonable prices – in my living room I have two small, matching stuffed armchairs that I purchased there, each one for $10 though I got them at different auctions. One year, I bought one – it was covered with a wild orange fabric that I felt I could live with – and a year or so later, another came up that matched, though the upholstery was light blue flowers. I had them both recovered and, voila, a pair. The other chair in that room is a bold Craftsman-style rocking chair that belonged to my grandfather. He had it painted gray. I spent many hours, stripping the paint to reveal the tiger oak it is made of. The desk I am writing on I bought out of a antiques shop in this town. I like to browse there from time to time. Some years ago, I bought this, an old harvest table, for another purpose, painted the legs Dutch blue and liked it so much, I eventually turned it into my desk. It’s spacious and has depth and is the perfect height.

In this house, old trunks become coffee tables and my grandparents’ lamps light the rooms – one of my favorite lamps came to me from the estate of a neighbor who passed away. I was very fond of her. Her daughters were so kind as to ask me if I would like something of hers. I chose a brass standing lamp and love the light it gives for my evening reading beside the stove. I never turn on the lamp without thinking of her. My dining room table was a wedding present to my great-grandparents, which is incomparable in terms of sitting at the table and feeling the presence of four generations of my family with me. Beds upstairs belonged to my parents and to my great-aunt. My father told me that six months before he married my mother, he bought the bed at a consignment shop and spent weeks removing the many layers of black paint to reveal the beautiful birds' eye maple of the frame. They slept in that bed for nearly fifty years, until they died. You could say I come by all of this honestly.

I don’t have to turn any of these pieces over to see if they were made in America and I’ve certainly never spent much on furniture. You shouldn’t have to. If your parents’ furniture isn’t up to snuff or isn’t to your taste, thrift stores and auctions can yield amazing bargains. The few times I’ve browsed in a furniture store, the prices made my hair stand on end. I imagine a young couple starting out could spend thousands of dollars to furnish their new, heavily mortgaged house and that team from ABC would come in and empty it completely. And I wonder how sturdy or long-lasting those new pieces would be. I think that furniture made in this country can last for centuries, if given half a chance. Maybe that’s the problem. Refurnishing, if I can call it that, does not answer the law of supply and demand.

I was going to write to ABC and tell them (proudly) that all the furniture in my house was made in America but then I realized that half of their mission was to create jobs in this country, jobs that have been lost by importing such a volume of foreign, often third world fabrications. So the idea of buying second-hand items probably defeats their purpose. At one time, the craftsmen who made my great-grandfather’s table and my parents' cannonball bed were revered. But the great furniture factories in this region have vanished from the landscape. Perhaps the craftsmanship has disappeared as well. If we’ve lost the skills along with the factories, I don’t know that abandoning the wares of countries halfway around the globe, made by people who are paid slave wages, will increase the situation in this country, caused, to be sure, by the massive level of outsourcing that was indulged in during the last two decades. But it’s worth trying and maybe that craftsmanship will re-enter our workforce, necessity being the mother of invention or, in this case, the grandmother.

Of course, not everyone can or would choose to furnish their homes with furniture from the last generation or the one next back from that or anything in between. But I think of it as something like heating with wood: it’s not for everyone but for those who choose it, it’s a reliable and economical thing to do. Not to mention that having these old pieces can make you feel connected, in a way that no couch from China or coffee table from Taiwan ever could.
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