Between 1830 and 1870 mechanisation revolutionised furniture production. New Zealand was at the forefront of machine wood-processing, which not only sped up manufacture but also reduced costs.
By the 1870s machine use in furniture factories was common. Dunedin firm George Findlay & Son imported from America plant for making doors, windows, mouldings and furniture. ‘The chief work done at the band-saw bench is the cutting of curved and circular work such as sofa scrolls, sofa legs, brackets, chair legs and chair backs … when one considers the work it can be made to do, it calls forth admiration,’ enthused the Otago Witness in 1874.1
From the 1890s electric motors progressively powered overhead line shafts that ran the machinery, replacing oil engines and earlier steam engines. Electric lighting after 1910 further reduced fire risk and assisted production. Mechanisation enabled small cabinetmaking businesses to become large enterprises.
In 1908 a journalist described E. Collie’s Art Furniture Factory showroom in Wellington as ‘a wilderness of many things necessary and many things luxurious. Sideboards in long lines make confusion with wardrobes in big patches; tables, settees, umbrella stands, chesterfields [sofas], whatnots [open shelves supported by posts], elbow one another for place; writing desks peep out from every corner; bookshelves and bookcases claim attention … chairs hang from the ceiling and straggle all over the floor’.2
Population growth and local industrial exhibitions increased the market for New Zealand-made furniture, not least because, as one commentator wrote in 1883, ‘the finest class of goods of the most tasteful designs can be made in the Colony for less than similar goods would cost if imported.’3
Rising demand led to the opening of specialist furnishing warehouses and stores. Businesses usually combined manufacturing and retailing divisions on the one site, with backroom factories producing items for front-of-house showrooms. Alfred White opened his small Christchurch shop in 1863 and by 1885 claimed to have the largest furniture and furnishing enterprise in the colony. The Dunedin firm of Scoullar and Chisholm also began in 1863 and was so successful that a second operation opened in Wellington in 1889. In 1900 Aucklander Jonathan Tonson Garlick’s Queen Street store had 1,400 square metres of showrooms, featuring all kinds of domestic and commercial furniture in New Zealand wood. It had a staff of 148 – including cabinetmakers, upholsterers, polishers and salespeople – and an annual turnover of £50,000 (almost $9 million in 2012 terms).
The rise of local furniture manufacturing did not halt furniture imports, whose annual value fluctuated, from £32,616 in 1870 ($4.1 million in 2012 terms) to £80,085 in 1883 ($13.4 million) and £35,998 in 1887 ($6.4 million). The decline from 1883 was due to the 1880s depression, which saw calls to raise import duties to protect local jobs. This was done, and by the early 1900s the value of imports had reached a plateau of around £44,000. Between 1893 and 1905 the number of people working in the industry rose from 614 to 2,208. In 1905 there were 331 furniture workrooms. Clearly, a high proportion of New Zealanders were buying New Zealand-made furniture. Prosperity and population growth fuelled demand.
Fashions and budgets
New Zealand firms mostly reproduced international styles in native timbers at affordable prices. Buyers were encouraged to keep abreast of fashion through cash discounts and time payment options. All large furnishing warehouses offered plans, guides and estimates to furnish everything from a cottage to a mansion. By 1900 Ballantynes of Christchurch produced their own artistic furniture catering for a spectrum of taste: arts and crafts, art nouveau, Anglo-Asian and Sheraton among a broad range of revival styles. In 1902 the DIC department store chain advertised that it furnished homes in ‘the best style with the least cost.’4 A four-roomed cottage cost £37 10s. (more than $6,000 in 2012) to furnish; a six-roomed cottage would set purchasers back £99 15s. (almost $17,000).