Featured photo: Eric Medlin holds his new book, ‘Sawdust in Your Pockets’
Eric Medlin is a history instructor at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. Recently Medlin celebrated the release of his book Sawdust in Your Pockets, the first book chronicling the history of the furniture industry in North Carolina. The book is sold at both Scuppernong Books in Greensboro and Bookmarks in Winston-Salem.
I noticed that your book has been called the first book chronicling the history of the furniture industry in North Carolina. That was surprising to me. Can you tell me more about how you came to write the book?
I was shocked, too. I got the idea about five years ago when I was working on something completely different. I was told by one of my mentors that there had never been a book written about the furniture industry.
I grew up in North Carolina and when you grow up here, you learn about tobacco, textile and furniture being the industrial basis for North Carolina. The fact that there hadn’t been an entire history about the furniture industry; I was amazed.
And as a historian, you’re always looking for something like that.
What was the process like in writing the book?
It’s different when you’re writing a book about something that hasn’t been written before at that level. You don’t have that secondary source base. I looked at newspapers, oral histories that had been done by the Furniture Hall of Fame in High Point and talked to some of the CEOs of furniture companies, furniture designers.
What were some of the most interesting things you learned in writing the book?
I think the most interesting thing is the size and scale of the furniture industry. Almost a million people worked for the furniture industry at its height in North Carolina which was in the mid-century around the 1950s and 70s.
There was furniture of all different price levels, designs; there were even lighting companies making lights for the showrooms. It was amazing how it all came together in High Point and how High Point became a boomtown and became this center for this industry.
Another thing that surprised me was that we talk a lot about plants closing but it takes a really long time in North Carolina. There’s a large amount of furniture manufacturing into the late 1990s, then it really falls off a cliff.
Why did High Point become such an important city for furniture?
North Carolina had all these things that furniture needed: wood, a limited amount of capital to build plants, cheap labor and entrepreneurs. We also had railroads coming together at the right time.
It started in the cabinet-making phase prior to the Civil War. In the 1880s it was the early factory period where there were small amounts of machines, some of the earliest factories.
Another thing that you always had to keep in mind is the textile industry. With the factory towns, they need furniture and they need cheap furniture.
Then in the early 20th Century it was the early Golden Age. High Point became a boomtown.
The Golden Age was probably from 1921-68. That was when the factory towns, driven by furniture, started creating a wide range of pieces and they started expanding outside of High Point into the Lenoirs and the Lexingtons. There were dozens of towns in North Carolina that made furniture.
Tell me more about that decline in the industry. When did it begin?
In 1968 you have furniture still growing like crazy but also the consolidation and the entry of big companies for the first time. Then globalization in the ’80s and ’90s created problems with cheaper labor in other places. And many of these towns, with the smallest economic headwinds, start to shut down the factories and lay everybody off.
When White Furniture Company closed in Mebane in 1993, that was a seminal moment in the industry; it was a sign that it was going to start declining.
What about what’s been happening more recently?
The past 10 years is its own phase. Furniture has been growing, becoming more resilient with the rise of custom furniture and high-class furniture. Then the Covid pandemic happened and revitalized American manufacturing a little bit. So everything hit rock bottom and it’s coming up a little bit.
At the moment, the Furniture Market is internationally known.
How do you think the Furniture Market has impacted High Point?
I think the market buoyed High Point. It’s the way High Point finds its way forward in a post-industrial landscape. The downtown pretty much oriented itself around it. Many of these buildings look empty after the market, but there’s people in them setting up for the next one. That’s an approach that very few towns in the country have taken. That was High Point’s strategy for dealing with factories closing. It’s worked in some ways, but hasn’t worked in other ways. It means you don’t have as many bars and restaurants downtown.
I think High Point has realized that it can’t just be a market town and it needs more attention and more focus the other weeks of the year. It’s realized that and is doing a good job focusing more on the local community. I think that is going to help it out in the future.
What impact do you think furniture as a whole has had on the state?
The real impact is how the industry put North Carolina on the map nationally and internationally. How this previously small, forgotten state became a nationally known powerhouse and created pieces that were known around the world.
What do you think the future looks like for the industry?
I think in general the furniture industry is still trying to figure out what it’s going to do and I think it’s found a good path forward. It needs to get a good hold on its labor situation. But I think it can do a lot of good work. We’re in the early stages of customizable, niche furniture. I think it’s really hopeful.
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