History of Lane Furniture: 1940-1957
Jun 15, 2016 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Welcome dear readers to the latest installment in the history of Lane furniture: 1940-1957. This series now takes us through the first fifty years of Lane. Let’s pick up where we left off – WWII was at its zenith and our beloved company was building cedar chests for soldiers’ sweethearts. If there’s one thing we’ve learned during this journey together, it’s that Lane was constantly innovating. Despite a global war, this era was no less dynamic and inspiring.
Remember that research program Edward Lane funded during the company’s early days? Well by the 1930s their scope went beyond moth protection and focused on another foe of treasured items everywhere: moisture. That’s right, Lane had evicted the moths and now nasty mildew was in the cross hairs. It took nearly twenty years to develop a strong enough glue to get the job done, but following the end of WWII Lane had achieved a moisture and warp-resistant particle plywood (lovingly called Lanewood). This invention became a prominent feature in cedar chests from this time period and ushered in an era of tremendous growth for the company.
In 1946 Lane welcome a second plant location to their Altavista-based family. Located in Smyrna, Tennessee in the heart of cedar country, it quickly became the new source for all Lane cedar paneling. Keep in mind up until this time Lane was know for doing one thing very well – cedar chests. They were enjoying Kleenex-style brand recognition – you don’t ever say “hand me a facial tissue,” you say “pass the Kleenex.” Lane was synonymous cedar chest and that’s no small feat! They could have very easily rested on their laurels. But as we all know they forged ahead into a world of breathtaking furniture. I bet you’ll never guess what (or whom) inspired this new direction…
As we’ve seen in the previous historical segments, Lane survived and thrived under Edward’s leadership due to two main reasons: sound business choices and innovation. But there was a chink in the armor and their bankers pointed it out (of all people!). I obviously wasn’t in attendance at this turning-point of a meeting, but I’ll summarize it for you: “congrats on being number one in the cedar chest market, but you need to diversify.” I can imagine that meeting felt a bit rough – after all, who wants to hear at the peak of your glory that you need to re-think your position? Especially a position that has served you so well. But as we know, Edward Lane had tough skin. This constructive feedback didn’t make him shrink back into the corner frantically sketching out the next great cedar chest, no – he did what he always did, he carved a new path.
“My whole experience of life and business has taught me that nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without teamwork. Cooperation and teamwork are behind every successful relationship or enterprise.” – Edward Hudson Lane, “Lane Furinture with a tradition and a future: the company’s first 50 years”
Following this meeting fate intervened by way of General Electric. GE contracted Lane to make television cabinets. It was a sweet deal for everyone involved (a win-win you might say, if you want to be technical!). Lane’s facilities were already set up to handle the work, their assembly teams were brilliant craftspeople, and GE handled all of the sales/marketing aspects. This relationship could prove to be fruitful for years to come. So why don’t we see an overabundance of Lane television cabinets in our local flea markets and Goodwills? Short answer: Uncle Sam. Long answer: The FCC put a choke hold on television station licenses and the entire entertainment industry slowed to a snail’s pace. Limited television stations meant limited demand and no need for an ample supply. The dream of diversifying through television ended.
Another fork in the road. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Edward could have told his bankers that they gave it a good college try but it didn’t work out. See Mr. Banker, this is a sign we need to stick to cedar chests. But nope. Not on Edward’s watch. With the taste of that initial success still in his mouth, the following year (1951 to be precise), a collection of forty occasional tables by Lane made their debut. Forty uniquely styled pieces were there for the public to assess. They waited to gauge the reception and soon realized their customers didn’t want these tables. Rather, they wanted these tables with matching end tables, consoles, etc. This ragtag group of tables needed to be part of an overall design scheme. Now it should be noted that the table manufacturing market at this time was very competitive. And here sauntered in Lane – the cedar chest group – what could they possibly know about tables? Oh brother, did they know plenty! That signature Lane quality and aesthetic made their tables into top three territory in under five years. Boom – challenge accepted and crushed.
You may think, okay – well done Lane. You’ve got a couple offerings in your portfolio now, congrats on diversifying. But surely you’ve been picking up on a theme right? Edward Lane was not one to be content with status quo, oh no sir. Just as his tables were flying out of furniture stores, he and his team were back to the drawing board to sketch out more ideas. In 1956 they expanded again, purchasing the Bald Knob furniture plant in nearby Rocky Mount, Virginia. Here is where most of the furniture pieces were made and developed, including the bedroom and dining collections that we all drool over today. Lane’s success was buoyed by a strict adherence to their playbook – advertise, advertise, advertise. Staying connected with their customers and seeking out the next generation of customers continued to serve them well. Lane even commissioned some architectural research into popular housing types and related spatial dimensions, to bring the most aesthetically pleasing and functional items to market. Throughout the many iterations of this company’s evolution, craftsmanship never played second fiddle. That iconic dovetail jointing (done by hand) was the heart and soul of every piece as it made the journey from factory to home.
Just as those pieces were assembled and left the confines of the factory, we find ourselves at the end of our tale. The first fifty years of Lane’s history here in black and white for your reading pleasure. What have you learned? (Please tell me in the comments.) While I wait for your feedback, let me tell you my favorite lesson from this story: the power of perseverance and a constant inquisitive outlook. When I think back to how this story begins, how we met a nervous young man cautiously taking the reins of a factory he doesn’t quite know what to do with… and then this young man who listened to the counsel of others, weighed that against his own ideas, and added a healthy dose of bravado – took that previously deserted factory to the heights of American manufacturing. It’s an incredible story that captures the kind of entrepreneurial attitude that’s blogged about today. Sorry Silicon Valley, you didn’t invent cool it’s a vintage thing! Next time you need a boost or need a little nudge down an adventurous new path I hope you think of Lane furniture and those dovetail joints…