I just adore Gibbard furniture, and I’m the proud owner of several pieces of this high-quality, hand-crafted merchandise. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to buy some exquisite items, like my solid walnut sideboard, my mahogany tea cart, two cherry end tables and my solid mahogany bedroom suite.
Gibbard is known for its hand-made enduring walnut, mahogany and cherry furniture. Gibbard has a rich and enduring history, and it all started when John Gibbard II, one of seven children, came to Napanee in 1834 at age 21 to start work as a carpenter. At the time, Napanee was a tiny village 40 kilo-metres west of Kingston, which was then the capital of Upper Canada. The area was soon to be booming with commerce and, in 1835; John Gibbard II opened his first furniture business.
Here is an interesting article relating to the history of the man and his company that I hope you’ll find enlightening. For those of you who have been lucky enough to buy a Gibbard piece before the renowned factory closed its door in 2008 after an illustrious 175 year legacy, or those who have found items for sale since then, the fact remains today that There is Nothing Like a Gibbard.
The Gibbard History:
Just before Confederation, John Gibbard leased a mill on the small waterway that eventually ran through the Gibbard plant, powering much of its equipment. The enterprise began to find its footing. Gibbard was noted as a fine local craftsman. In fact, he helped construct the first historic MacPherson House.
On three occasions, fire destroyed the Gibbard factories in the late 19th century, but each time Gibbard rebuilt. In 1868, he and son William opened Gibbard & Son. Though unverified, company lore has it William’s good business sense made sure that Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald received a Gibbard desk.
William Gibbard was also an undertaker. So besides the parlour, dining, bedsteads and variety of chairs, local ads also noted “funerals furnished” and “coffins always on hand.” By the turn of the century, Gibbard & Son was flourishing.
William was a modernist, a member of Napanee town council who pushed for electric lighting and gas works so he could further modernized the factory.
At that time, the company picnics at Massassauga Park were social events not to be missed -attended by all employees, their families and friends. Despite the often sweltering July heat, the parade of Victorian finery – especially well displayed in ladies hats – made the annual picnic one of the social events of the season.
In 1913 William’s son, George William, took over, further developing the firm’s walnut furniture lines and within a few years, Gibbard was a staple for the T. Eaton Co. In the roaring twenties, Eaton’s featured Gibbard’s walnut dining room tables, beds, and chests in ads as “the aristocrat of cabinetmakers.” George William died suddenly in 1929 at age 45, leaving his son, Ernie, only 19, to cope with the Great Depression.
The firm had always been big for sports events, sponsoring inter-league hockey and baseball teams, and Ernie Gibbard had a special love of sports. He developed Gibbard Bell Park to increase employee morale during the Dirty Thirties. The Gibbard baseball team won two Ontario championships in 1934.Employee lore tells of umpires reaching the boiling point, throwing out star players as the competition between company teams was so stiff.
At the end of the Depression, though, the firm was in desperate financial straits. In 1940, Jack McPherson, a manager who left Gibbard in the ’20s to go to Montreal – and grandfather and father to the current owners – offered to restructure, with capital from other investors.
During the Second World War, Gibbard’s fortunes rebounded. Workers made spruce munitions boxes – two sizes, one for grenades and one for shells – along with cabinets and chairs.
The first of many lavish, large staff Christmas parties was held in 1941 in the factory showroom, titled “A Vision in Brass” to match the inspirational story and quote that went with the invitations.
“For a man can do true work only when he looks beyond what he is making to its purpose. He shall not say, “I am making a lamp,” but “I am bringing the happiness of light to people.” When he can look through his task to its ultimate end, then the real joy of creation shall come to him.”
The passage came from A Vision in Brass by Ronalds, as remembered from a story told him by Harry Varley (1925).
By late 1950s, Gibbard furniture was being installed in Canadian embassies, consulates and commissions in Iran, Nigeria, Norway, Indonesia and Australia. Up to 70 Canadian embassies and high commissions sport Gibbard furnishings -mostly the 1964 flagship Canadian Legacy line of mahogany and cherry wood now sold around the world.
Business boomed and staff expanded through the ’60s and ’70s as can be seen in the 1967 Centennial company workers’ portrait. Famous folks, including hockey great Bobby Orr, became fans, but by the end of the 1980s, the demand for quality furniture that could be handed from one generation to the next began to wane in favour of less costly imports.
Free trade did not help. Nationally, the firm had more than 200 dealers before free trade in the 1990s. Now, it has only about 60. Eaton’s, one of the company’s biggest dealers, is long gone.
Gibbard would lose its identity if it gave up its commitment to hand made craftsmanship to compete with cheaper offshore imports, says co-owner Bruce McPherson Jr. It was a compromise the company was unwilling to make.
Please visit our “items for sales page” to view the Vintage Cherry Gibbard Hutch for sale.
ROBIN HARVEY, FOR THE WHIG-STANDARD