It was hoped that iron bed frames would repel the insects that invaded wooden ones. But the pests found iron as appealing as wood
manned by immigrants who ‘scamped’ for ‘ linen drapers’ or peddled their wares at nearby markets, were bare, blackened, candlelit lofts or cellars.
Other workshops, corners carved out of living quarters, subjected their nearest and dearest to shrieks of buzz saws, clouds of sawdust and ankle-deep wood shavings. In addition, as a master cheerily explained in 1875: “I’m obliged to keep up a good fire, howsomever hot the weather may be, ‘cos of my glue.”
Come autumn and winter, people evidently bought less furniture as demand for cabinet makers dried up at these times. Yet apparently, these “hard-working, intelligent, sober gentlemen”, known for “living… near their workshops, and going home to every meal”, were rarely out of work for more than a month or six weeks at a time.
Cabinet makers who averaged 30s a week could usually afford a good joint of meat as well as the occasional new dress for the wife, and something for the children. At other times, they pawned unsold goods on a Saturday night to pay for their Sunday dinner.
Scraping a living
Unfortunates who were paid by the piece, however, could barely keep their families in hearth and home. Indeed, one confided: “I have not been able to realise the price of a day’s work, say 5s, above the cost of materials, though upwards of a week has been consumed in manufacturing [the] article – the consequences being short fare, scanty clothing, a selling and pledging of all the necessary articles of home, neglect of children’s education, and, should a longer continuance of want of employment have ensued, every vestige of home… swept away.”
Researching cabinet maker ancestors may be challenging. In various UK historical trade directories, which you can search through at ancestry.co.uk, the vast majority appear as “cabinet makers”, regardless of whether they assembled bedsteads, crafted cribbage boards, or carved claw-and-ball chair legs.
Census records should show whether they were ever more precise in their descriptions. Melody Amsel-Arieli is a genealogist and author who is based in Israel
Tannahill & Sons has been making cabinets in Kilmarnock since 1882