The log band saw, which Schrenkeisen was one of the first firms to adopt, made it possible for large boards to be cut straight more quickly and efficiently than the older frame and sash saws, although its major benefit was in its economy of wood. The smaller band saw, which could easily maneuver small pieces of wood that required specific curves, was also a relatively recent development.
Despite the proliferation of machinery at large-scale factories such as that operated by M. & H. Schrenkeisen, some work still required significant manpower. The process of sanding was eventually simplified with the introduction of belt-powered sanders, as seen here, but the sanding process continued to be finished by hand until the 1870s. Likewise, hand-carving, the best paid of the specialized furniture tasks, was often necessary. In the case of Schrenkeisen, the firm prided itself on providing affordable hand-carved details as late as the 1890s.
The finishing and upholstery of furniture were typically carried out on the first floor of large-scale furniture factories. Upholstery and carving were the more highly paid professions, and mid-century workers could earn up to thirty dollars a week. In this image, we see two finishers checking for sound construction in a fashionable settee and a side table. A figure in the background completes the upholstery, probably with nails and hammer, on the back and seat of another settee, which is set on a simple worker’s bench. Women workers took on particular upholstery work in some factories, such as Herter Brothers. This side chair, with its original upholstery, was most likely the product of a New York factory.
The two six-story buildings of the German furniture makers M. & H. Schrenkeisen produced an enormous array of parlor furniture. This image depicts many factory activities in a sequence from the top left, where logs are first cut, to the finishing and upholstery of furniture at the bottom right. This idealized image, however, elides the distinction between factory owners and laborers, whose relationships were often vexed. By 1880, the date of this Scientific American illustration and article, large factories like that of M. & H. Schrenkeisen utilized the latest technologies for the production of furniture.
The greatest threat to furniture workers came not from replacement by machinery but from the availability of poorly trained immigrants who were willing to work for as little as five dollars a week. The New York Times covered the strikes of Schrenkeisen workers hoping for higher wages and fewer hours from the 1860s through the 1880s. Just months before that article appeared, Schrenkeisen workers protesting for a reduction of the requisite sixty-hour work week were fired. The image of the idyllic factory setting and its committed workers may have served as a booster for Schrenkeisen at a time when they were losing employees.
M. & H. Schrenkeisen
M. & H. Schrenkeisen, which specialized in the production of parlor furniture for the middle class, was one of many immigrant furniture makers located on the Lower East Side, known in the nineteenth century as Klein Deutschland (Little Germany). Although many smaller German workshops dotting the streets of Little Germany faded in and out over the course of the second half of the century, factories like that of Schrenkeisen on Elizabeth Street successfully produced on a large scale, employing the latest technologies and maintaining a predominantly male workforce.