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Early History of Wicker Furniture in America

Although the first piece of wicker furniture in America came over on the Mayflower, the American wicker furniture industry really dates back to the early 1850s, when a young grocer named Cyrus Wakefield discovered large quantities of rattan on the docks of Boston. On ships that had been to Asia, the vines were used to keep cargo from shifting on the long voyage home. The properties and possibilities of the strange foreign material fascinated Mr. Wakefield. He sold his grocery store and started the Wakefield Rattan Company in South Reading, Massachusetts. The product proved so popular that Wakefield was soon importing his own clipper ships full of rattan, which was in great demand by basket and furniture makers. Wakefield then started making his own wicker furniture; he is known today as the father of the industry. The Wakefield Rattan Company grew tremendously during the 1860s and virtually cornered the market on wicker furniture. Wakefield became a wealthy man from his business ventures; after his death in 1873, the town of South Reading renamed itself Wakefield in appreciation for all the jobs he created and the money he donated to the town. Some time after the Civil War, the Heywood Brothers Company, the largest wood chair manufacturer in the United States, began using rattan in the making of their chairs. An inventor employed by this company invented a loom to weave the cane and a way to install the cane seats so that they did not have to be hand woven. Automation reduced the cost of making wicker furniture dramatically. Before long, the Heywood Brothers Company and the Wakefield Rattan Company were fierce competitors.

Although the competition between the two major companies was keen during the 1870s and 1880s, it was the general wicker-buying public who ultimately benefited -- improved designs and lower prices were the end result of this famous intro-industry rivalry. Yet, surprisingly, in April, 1897 the two titans decided to merge and formed the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company, a consolidation which all but monopolized the quality wicker furniture industry from the turn of the century through the 1920s.