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Bemis Riddell Chaise Lounge

Bemis Riddell chaise lounge custom made for the company owner, Albert Bemis, c. 1925 (reupholstered, c. 1940).
(Museum Object #1984.319.1A-B)

Relaxing in a lounge chair while taking in views of Wisconsin's lake beauty is a summertime tradition enjoyed by generations of Wisconsin residents and visiting tourists. But not everybody has the good fortune to relish the experience on a piece of furniture custom made by skilled craftsmen. This fiber chaise lounge was made around 1925 by craftsmen at the Bemis Riddell Fibre Company of Sheboygan, Wisconsin specifically for co-owner Albert Bemis. It resided in the Bemis family's Sheboygan home in a room overlooking Lake Michigan.

The term chaise lounge is an adaptation of the French term chaise longue meaning "long chair". Because of the similarity of the French word "longue" and the English word "lounge", the chaise is usually referred to as a chaise lounge by Americans. The origins of the chaise lounge are rooted in ancient cultures of Greece, Africa, and the Egyptian daybed. Its form and function make it well suited for use on the patio or porch. Interestingly, the form and length of Albert's custom-made piece is more like a day bed than a chaise lounge.

This chaise lounge features extensive loom-woven fiber construction surrounding a wooden frame. The painted fibers are original but the full-length padded mattress, which rests above a built-in metal box spring, and the other fabric portions were reupholstered around 1940. Though lightweight in appearance, this chaise is a substantial piece of furniture measuring 80 inches long, 25 inches wide, and 40 inches high.

Making fiber furniture required many steps. First, machines cut 20 foot rolls of craft paper into 3 inch strips, which were then wound into tough, durable fibers. Skilled craftsman wove the fibers into furniture components such as chair seats and backs. As production increased, weaving took place on looms. These components were then dipped into glue, dried, painted, and carefully assembled by craftsman into finished products such as chairs, rockers, sofas, and chaise lounges.

In 1916 two Sheboygan furniture manufacturers joined forces to make a new type furniture for the American marketplace - fiber furniture. Albert Bemis and George Riddell formed the Bemis Riddell Fibre Company and began production in space rented from a Sheboygan glove company., Within two years, their success allowed Bemis Riddell to build their own large, four-story factory. Even though it required significant amounts of skilled labor, low labor costs and cheap materials made fiber furniture affordable. Subsequently, consumer demand soon reached an all time high, peaking in the 1920s.

Business was booming for Bemis Riddell in 1924 so the company built a major addition and sought to diversify their holdings when they bought the White Wagon Works of nearby Sheboygan Falls. Perhaps foreseeing that not all good times last, Bemis made a move in 1928 that would prove very wise. He bought out Riddell's interest in the wagon company, and Riddell bought Bemis's interest in the fiber furniture company. For Riddell, increased wages and decreased demand brought on by the 1930s Great Depression took a heavy toll on the fiber furniture industry, and in 1934 his fiber company declared bankruptcy.

Bemis fared better as his newly acquired wagon company, renamed the Bemis Manufacturing Company, began making novelty furniture to accompany its toy wagon products. In 1932 the company began producing wooden toilet seats - much more of a consumer necessity than novelty furniture. Over the years toilet seats became the company's main product and helped it ride out the economic downturn of the Depression. Today, the Bemis Manufacturing Company is a global manufacturer of plastic products and has become the world's largest maker of plastic toilet seats.

[Sources: Laun, Peter. "The Bemis Story: a History of the Bemis Manufacturing Company of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin" (copyright Peter Laun, 1987); Hildebrand, Janice. Chairs (Sheboygan, WI: Joint Research & Publications Committee of the Sheboygan County Historical Society and the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, 1994).]


Posted on June 21, 2007

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