White Furniture will never be dead so long as we have children who have children. You take my son. A lot of things I do at home when I’m working around my little shop, I do as he’s around. I’ll show him whether it’s a different kind of wood or whether it’s maybe boring a hole in cherry that’s very brittle and will break unless you bore a hole before you put a screw in it. That my son learns. He knows how to sand with the grain of the wood, and so long as he’s alive he can pass that on to his children. White’s will always be alive so long as there are people around in this area. Wherever we go, whatever we do, White’s will never be dead.

— Ronnie  Sykes, 27-year employee at White Furniture Company

Here is White Furniture, Part 1.

The 1980s gave us terms like hostile takeover, conglomerates, outsourcing, leveraged buyouts and downsizing. The U.S. furniture market, once dominant and respected, found itself struggling to survive. White Furniture Company, family owned and operated since 1881, was sold to Hickory Furniture in 1985. The newly formed Hickory-White Corporation closed the Mebane factory in 1993.

In its few years as owner of the White factory, Hickory-White pushed for increased productivity and speed at the expense of craftsmanship. Short cuts became the norm.

 When Hickory took over, if it was off an eighth of an inch, why, that didn’t make any difference, we’d just cut the drawer a little bit and make it fit. The hole, if it were an eighth of an inch too big, we’d drive a thumbtack under each side of it.

— James Gilland, 41-year employee at White Furniture Company

Bill Bamberger and Cathy N. Davidson’s book Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory presents White Furniture Company as a microcosm of events occurring across the country. American manufacturing — furniture making and a multitude of other industries — died in the 1980s and 1990s. We found ourselves living in a postindustrial country — and then the Great Recession hit. By experience or extension, we all understand the pain caused by losing jobs, craftsmanship, and community.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Layoff meeting, cabinet room. Photograph by Bill Bamberger

At its heart, then, the White Furniture story is not just about economics. It is about personal loss and family tensions. It is about the job of work and the tragedy of being deprived of work. It is about the sense of self that comes from taking  pride in one’s craft. And it is about the sense of community that develops when people who might otherwise have little in common–men and women, blacks, Hispanics, and whites–work side by side, depending on one another to get a job done right. (Davidson, 19-20)

In late 1992, when Bill Bamberger learned that the White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC, would close, he sought permission to document the factory and workers’ final months. The operation was neither quick nor painless. White Furniture didn’t close all at once. Its end was gradual, an excruciating, clinical procedure that came like dying gasps. As the final pieces of furniture wended their way through the construction process, clusters of despondent workers received word to leave their line and head for the personnel department.

The kiln area was first to go. Then the rough mill, when its noisy saws fell silent. Then the glue machine workers. The machine room. The sanding room. Assembling. Finishing. Lastly, with  the factory quiet for the first time in over a century, the men and women of the rub and pack station were called to the personnel office. They waited for the inevitable, a few meaningless words, a handful of papers, a handshake, and an end to their way of life. The White Furniture factory, the beating heart of Mebane, would never reopen.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Workers with their pension papers. Photograph by Bill Bamberger

I learned of White Furniture Company after David and I bought several pieces of their furniture at an estate sale. The more I read on the subject, the more interested I became. Their story was equal parts sad and uplifting, displaying the very best and very worst of the American Dream. Our pieces are more meaningful now, with a poignant story to go with their beautifully crafted lines.

Our magnificent dining room set appeared in my White, Part 1 post, but we have more White Furniture to share. Three bedroom pieces: a vanity seat (a young couple beat us to the vanity, yet inexplicably left the seat behind) and two French Provincial twin bed frames with softly sloping cane headboards. They take my breath away.

White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: Vanity Stool
White Furniture of Mebane NC
White Furniture: French Provincial Twin Bed Frames

I am incredibly grateful to Bill Bamberger for allowing me to use a few of his powerful photographs. His unflinching lens captured the end of an era in this country, his snapshots a somber vignette of what so many Americans have come to face. The stunned looks on the weary faces of White’s craftsmen as their livelihood disappears is heartbreaking. I can’t help but wonder which of these workers helped craft my pieces of furniture.

The venerable White Furniture Company lived and died and people should know about it. One final photo demonstrates the dedication of this family of workers. On his final day Avery made sure his section, the now empty cabinet room, looked spick-and-span before he set down his broom, walked out the door one last time, and into the unknown.

Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory
Avery sweeping the cabinet room floor on his final day of work. Photograph by Bill Bamberger
Ann Marie and David

Read about our White Furniture Company Clothes Press.

Wondering about the resale value of White Fine Furniture? Read How Much Is My White Fine Furniture Worth?

Can You Name My White Fine Furniture Collection?

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22 Comments on White Furniture Company of Mebane, NC, Part 2

  1. Suzanne
    August 2, 2015 at 1:35 pm (3 years ago)

    Thank you so much for a great article on the White Furniture Co! I have picked up a few of their pieces before in the past. Funny how when I started I had no idea about furniture makers and have slowly learned. This was great to read. Those beds are to die for gorgeous! Thanks for sharing on The Painted Drawer Link Party!

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      August 2, 2015 at 6:26 pm (3 years ago)

      Thanks, Suzanne. I understand what you mean about learning the nuances of the furniture business as we travel on our journey. I really felt a connection with White Furniture and wanted to share it. I so appreciate your kind comments.

      Reply
  2. Ronnie
    August 6, 2015 at 6:41 pm (3 years ago)

    Hi irisabbey,
    I happen to stumble across your White Furniture article while searching for information on a buffet/sideboard type piece that my lovely girlfriend picked up. She and I have both seen numerous photos of White Furniture pieces but have yet to find out anything about the one she has. Is it possible that you could guide us to a good place to find out more about this item. I have just learned to look for numbers on the back to help identify lot information so I’ll be checking that out this evening. Thank you for your time and have a blessed day

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      August 7, 2015 at 6:47 pm (3 years ago)

      Hi, Ronnie, I can offer a few suggestions. Sometimes on ebay a seller makes a furniture catalog or advertisement available. I just checked and didn’t see anything current for White Furniture of Mebane. Another problem, which you may have run into, is the frustratingly common occurrence of finding pieces of furniture painted white when you are really looking for White Furniture. I asked an expert about the numbers on the back of my White pieces. He said that every furniture manufacturer had numbers unique to their company. Since White’s went out of business, it’s going to be almost impossible to learn the meanings of those numbers. How deeply do you want to research this? You may want to try the University of North Carolina Library System or the NC Historical Society. Good luck!

      Reply
  3. Pamela
    August 11, 2015 at 5:35 pm (3 years ago)

    My husband and I bought a White Furniture bedroom set from a local new and estate furniture store when we were newlweds. Our set was new. It felt like we had won the lottery 😉 we couldn’t afford to have it delivered too so we brought it home in pieces in an old borrowed pick up truck. An older, long married couple suggested we invest in a bedroom set first, a decision we have never regretted. We bought a cane insert queen bed, 2 night stands, a triple dresser and armoir all with insets of burled walnut and the dresser top is marquetry. When we up-sized to a king bed about 10 years ago we tried to find a White distributor with no results. Now I know why! Thank you for an informative post. If our friends were still alive we’d be sure to thank them for such good advice.

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      August 11, 2015 at 6:11 pm (3 years ago)

      Pamela, your friends gave you excellent advice. As you already know, you possess exquisite furniture. I loved your story about moving it from the store in pieces. You reminded me of the time my husband and I, poor graduate students, bought a stereo for a phenomenal price. We had to load it up then and there. My husband said he would use his belt to secure parts to the car’s roof if necessary.
      Since learning so much about the White Furniture Co., I have a special place in my heart for its owners, craftsmen, and furniture. I am grateful for your comment.

      Reply
    • irisabbey
      August 16, 2015 at 4:19 am (3 years ago)

      Thanks so much, Kathryn. I can see that you put a lot of time and effort into your parties and I greatly appreciate your dedication.

      Reply
  4. Vanessa
    November 21, 2015 at 6:06 pm (3 years ago)

    Enjoyed your article and love for White Furniture, I can relate to all that you have written. Beautiful superb quality furniture, loved and valued for years. I have many pieces throughout my home, am downsizing and selling some now from the Lorraine line. Hard to let go of such beautiful pieces.

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      November 22, 2015 at 10:25 pm (3 years ago)

      Vanessa, your recognition of White Furniture’s quality is appreciated. The Lorraine collection is wonderful; how fortunate that you’ve enjoyed it for many years. I absolutely understand how it’s difficult to part with these pieces of American history.

      Reply
  5. Patryce
    February 6, 2016 at 10:21 pm (3 years ago)

    Thank you for this article! I have a large dining room set I bought at a consignment shop for under $100 but after a few months decided to sell it as it is just too big for my apartment plus am moving to a smaller place. I tried looking for a label of some sort when I bought it (love antique furniture so I’m always doing research) but never could find anything. Then someone contacted me to buy it and asked who made it and what type of wood it was. I had no clue!!! Took me over an hour to find the makers of this table and finally found it on the inside where you insert the leaves! It was stamped and said White Furn. Co. and had a number underneath. Did more research and couldn’t believe it!! I can’t find the exact table online but have been doing a lot of research about this company and find it very intriguing! I absolutely love stories like this so I wanted to thank you. Always looking for antiques and find some great stuff but this is by far the best piece of furniture I have ever found. 🙂

    Reply
    • Patryce
      February 6, 2016 at 10:24 pm (3 years ago)

      I would absolutely love to share a picture of it if possible. The table and chairs are just remarkable! I believe you would truly appreciate it!

      Reply
    • irisabbey
      February 7, 2016 at 7:43 pm (3 years ago)

      Patryce, thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate your enthusiasm about White Furniture. How lucky to have have discovered you owned a piece! I am so grateful to Bill Bamberger and Cathy Davidson for their book “Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory.” It provides a rich history and strong images. A few months ago, at an estate sale, I ran across a beautiful bedroom set made by White Furniture Co. of Mebane. It was priced so high that I couldn’t begin to negotiate. I truly believe that White Furniture represents a piece of American history.

      Reply
  6. Robin from RPK Interiors
    March 13, 2016 at 10:36 pm (3 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this article! My eyes are still welling up with tears. I grew up in a family furniture business and we carried some White Fine Furniture over the years. Our doors closed in 1997 & I have since adopted a passion for “reloving” old, tired pieces. I’ve just completed a 3 piece bedroom set made by White for a lovely family and will share your articles on the history of the company. Thank you again for your touching article! ~ Robin

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      March 14, 2016 at 5:42 pm (3 years ago)

      Robin, I send you bouquets of thanks for your generous, kind comment. I feel an affinity with the White Furniture Company, which I believe was an important player in the U.S. furniture industry.

      Reply
  7. Terryjane
    July 11, 2016 at 8:00 pm (2 years ago)

    We just inherited 2 large armoires from the White furniture company. They have 4 drawers and 3 shelves, one shelf has removable dividers. The two doors have a metal lattice work framed with wood and linen curtains behind the lattice work. The workmanship is beautiful. Nothing you would see today. The movers were impressed but it was tough getting them up to our second floor condo with no elevator. Do you have any information about pieces like these?

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      July 19, 2016 at 7:42 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi, Terryjane — I’m afraid I can’t be of much help to you. I am trying to have copies made of some White’s catalogs. Just know that you have beautiful, handcrafted furniture made in the United States. Your pieces represent a bygone era and you are lucky to have them.

      Reply
      • Terryjane
        July 19, 2016 at 9:43 pm (2 years ago)

        Thank you. I know they are beautiful. If you ever find any information I’d love to hear it.

        Reply
  8. Jerri
    March 7, 2018 at 12:29 pm (9 months ago)

    So happy to have found a s well-written about the demise of the NC furniture industry. I was there. My miother rented mobile homes in my hometown, Lenoir, NC, to employees of factories within walking distance of her park. There was Hamnary, Kincaid, Singer, and within driving Broyhill, Bernhardts and others. Today we found a White Furniture Co. dining table and found the information on your site that was so helpful. I have been in California since 1988, and moved here from High Point where I had worked during the big World Furniture Market that was previously in Lenoir, NC.

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      March 19, 2018 at 5:24 pm (9 months ago)

      Jerri — I love hearing from people with a direct link to the time when the NC furniture industry was a powerhouse. The tragic demise of White Furniture means so much more than a furniture company going out of business. It represents a change in the American way of life. When manufacturing moved off our shores, jobs were lost and lives changed indelibly. Product quality fell precipitously. Today we have learned to buy cheaper furniture that can be replaced in just a few years.

      Reply
  9. Cramer
    October 7, 2018 at 10:31 pm (2 months ago)

    Thank you for the information on White Furniture Company. We just took a detour off I-85 due to an accident and drove past the old building. It has been converted into lofts for residential living. Your story brought tears to our eyes at the loss of such craftsmanship.

    Reply
    • irisabbey
      October 24, 2018 at 2:54 pm (2 months ago)

      Thanks for reading our blog! By visiting, you have also connected yourselves to the women and men who packed their lunches, dinners and went to work for decades at White.

      Reply

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