Singer Cabinet Factory - South Bend, Indiana, USA
By the mid 1860's Singer realised that in order to massively expand their sewing machine production, they would need to be able to source vast quantities of hardwood timber with which to make the cabinets. A young man called Leighton Pine was sent out to find suitable supplies. He reported that the area around South Bend, Indiana provided huge reserves of suitable hardwood timber.
Following Pine’s report, the company made the strategic decision to open a massive purpose built factory in South Bend for the mass production of furniture. This started production in 1868 with Pine as its Manager.
Other companies had started to use lathes with a special blade to shave off a thin layer from the surface of a log so that the resulting veneers could be stuck together in layers to make a board of any desired size and thickness. In an early piece of industrial espionage, Singer ‘borrowed’ this technique and developed it themselves. By layering the grain in alternate directions the finished board had greater strength and stability. The company soon realised that the bulk of the layers could be made from cheap softwood and it was only necessary to apply the expensive, walnut, oak etc. to the outside layer to give the illusion of a solid hardwood cabinet. This drastically reduced the requirement of expensive hardwood and provided very significant costs savings. A significant step in developing the product we now know as plywood, was the use of steam heated drying plates to speed up the process to a practical level, enabling true mass production.
With the price of traditional hardwoods being driven higher by demand, 1880 saw Pine experimenting with using Nyssa (commonly known as Gumwood). This had long been considered worthless as a timber, because it was very prone to shrinkage and twisting. As a result it was plentiful and cheap. By passing the veneer sheets through heavy rollers under great pressure Pine was able to squeeze out most of the moisture resulting in greater stability and less shrinkage. To take advantage of this resource a new cabinet factory was established in 1881 at Cairo, Illinois which was centered in the middle of a large Nyssa forest. Up until the 1920’s the South Bend and Cairo plants between them provided the main timber requirements for all the Singer factories.
Initially the South Bend plant was producing around 1000 cabinets a week, but by the mid 1880’s over 2000 workers were making around 10,000 cabinets a week. By 1900 the output had further increased to 20,000 sets per week.
The first factory was located along the river in the East Race area, between East Madison and North Emrick Street (now Niles Avenue). In 1901 the factory was relocated to a much larger facility on the western edge of the city between Western Avenue, Walnut Street and Olive Street. This site incorporated a foundry for casting treadle stands and other iron work.
At its peak, the South Bend factory employed over 3000 people, making it the largest cabinet factory anywhere in the world.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s production declined as the demand for sewing machines mounted in cabinets diminished in favour of smaller machines in portable cases. And also at that time the company opened up a new saw mill in Thurso, Canada near to a large tract of forest for which it had purchased the logging rights.
The South Bend factory was finally closed in 1954.