The Dutch and Furniture City (Origins Vol. 37, No. 2)

The Dutch and Furniture City (Origins Vol. 37, No. 2)

The fall 2019 issue of Origins: Historical Magazine of The Archives (vol. 37, no. 2) is now available in print! It focuses on Dutch immigrants and the furniture industry in Grand Rapids. You can access one of the articles for free, below.

As Janet Sjaarda Sheeres explains in her editor’s introduction, “Grand Rapids became the foremost furniture producing city in the United States, employing thousands of men. By 1911 there were fifty-nine furniture plants going full speed. In Strike, How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, Jeffrey Kleiman noted, ‘While not all Dutch immigrants became furniture workers, the majority of furniture workers were Dutch. At the turn of the century, when their numbers peaked, nearly half of the seven-thousand-man labor force of the city’s chief industry was drawn from these religiously cantankerous people.’”

Here is a quick run-down of the stories in this issue of Origins.

Mary Risseeuw’s essay, “Dutch Furniture Manufacturers in the United States,” describes “Dutch immigrants who set about making furniture and founded their own companies. In a dozen vignettes, she gives us a glimpse into their backgrounds and their creativity. Included in her article are such well-known companies as Baker Furniture and Hekman Furniture, as well as some lesser known, but no less interesting ones.”

In his article on the Grand Rapids furniture strike of 1911, Robert Schoone-Jongen follows up by writing about “what happens when these ‘religiously cantankerous people’ decide to lay down their tools and walk out to strike for higher wages.’”

The story of the Dutch in “Furniture City” also is about employers. Robert Yonker writes about two brothers, Martin and John Bekins, who started what became a nationwide moving company in West Michigan.  Ronald Cammenga and Joyce Bouwkamp Cammenga look back on the career of John Cammenga in “If you can’t find a job, create one!” “When John lost his job at Berkey and Gay Furniture Company due to the Depression of the 1930s, he decided to go into business for himself,” Sheeres summarizes.

Finally, Sheeres herself discusses the history of “Sacred Furniture–such as pulpits, pews, baptismal fonts, and communion tables. The stories she tells include pioneers making do with what they had, churches commissioning fine furniture, how furniture shaped worship practices, and family legacies.

Enjoy the free sample essay by Robert Schoone-Jongen (click the link above) from this issue of Origins: Historical Magazine of The Archives. If you’re interested in subscribing, contact us at

William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.

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