Until the 1870s most Texans bought their house furniture from local cabinetmakers. Census records, newspaper advertisements, and surviving examples of furniture indicate that nearly 1,000 cabinetmakers made furniture in Texas between 1839, when the first, William P. Lang of Houston, was recorded, and 1880, when locally made furniture had been largely replaced by imported, factory-made furniture. During those years there was at least one cabinet shop in every county in Texas, and most towns had several. Furniture production was most heavily concentrated in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Blackland Prairie south of the Red River in North Texas, the German settlements between the Brazos and Colorado rivers in Central Texas, the German settlements in the Hill Country, and the cities of Galveston and Austin. The majority of Texas cabinetmakers were Southerners, but a significant minority were German immigrants, whose work was not confined to the German settlements. In 1860, when only 6 percent of the state's population was German-born, Germans comprised 33 percent of the cabinetmakers listed on the census. New Englanders, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, and a few midwesterners, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Scandinavians, Poles, Bohemians, and Hispanics also made furniture in nineteenth-century Texas. Cabinetmakers in rural areas generally operated one-man shops and often farmed as well, frequently investing the profits from the shop in land. Many also followed other woodworking trades and built houses, cotton gins, and wagons as well as furniture; nearly all made coffins, and many served as undertakers. Their shops were equipped with hand tools and foot-powered turning lathes, and they produced a limited variety of furniture forms: chairs, tables, beds, wardrobes, bureaus, settees, day beds, desks, and cupboards. They made little upholstered furniture, although the 1870 census records two Galveston cabinetmakers, Will Howe and William Patch, who were making day beds upholstered with horsehair stuffed with Spanish moss.
Wood was usually obtained locally, either from the pine forests of East Texas and Bastrop County or the fluvial hardwood forests along rivers and creeks. The primary woods used were pine, cedar, and walnut, although some cabinetmakers imported expensive and exotic woods such as mahogany and rosewood, and cabinetmakers in treeless Galveston imported pine from Alabama, Florida, and Maine. Pine furniture was frequently painted with oil-based paint or grained in imitation of more expensive woods. Other woods were finished with glossy varnish, often made from copal.
Most Texas cabinetmakers worked in the conservative Plain Grecian or Restoration style (now sometimes called "pillar and scroll") that was popular throughout the South from the 1830s through the 1870s. German-trained cabinetmakers, especially those who were making furniture for Texas-German clients, often worked in a style derived from the Biedermeier style popular in Germany in the 1840s, and sometimes made chairs in the German peasant Brettstuhl form. Though Hispanic cabinetmakers in the Rio Grande valley may have developed styles related to those of northern Mexico, there are few documented examples of their work. Texas cabinetmakers were conversant with many contemporary styles, and pieces made in the 1870s show the influence of the Renaissance Revival, Rococo Revival, and Gothic Revival styles that were then popular in other parts of the United States. In the 1880s Wenzel Friedrich established a factory in San Antonio that made furniture from animal horns in the Rustic style, popular in Europe and the East for furnishing hunting and vacation lodges.
As in the rest of the South, nineteenth-century Texas cabinetmakers divided themselves into two groups: those that made only chairs and those that made case furniture as well. Chairmakers used a turning lathe and a draw knife to make light ladder-backed chairs with rawhide or woven cornshuck bottoms. The best-documented chairmaker in Texas was Anderson Dorris, a Tennessean who made chairs in Lockhart between 1852 and the mid-1880s, as did five other members of the Dorris family. In 1860 he and his son John made 450 hide-bottomed chairs and sold them for $1.50 each. At least forty other men described themselves as chairmakers to the census taker between 1850 and 1880. At the other end of the scale, Henry Journeay established a cabinet shop in Galveston in 1850 that employed twenty men, all of whom lived on the premises. In addition to making case furniture they operated a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, and a lumberyard and built wooden buildings. H. H. Ward opened a similar establishment in Austin in 1840. These two large urban shops reflected a general mid-nineteenth-century trend in American cabinetmaking toward increased production for retail outlets that kept permanent inventories rather than making furniture exclusively to fill individual orders. By 1860 the American furniture industry was being concentrated in the Midwest, where factories with steam-powered machinery produced furniture in large quantities at prices lower than those of local cabinetmakers. In the 1860s and 1870s Texas cabinetmakers made an effort to compete with these new forces by employing more workers and, eventually, by adding animal-powered and steam-powered machinery to their shops.
Mechanization was most intense in East Texas and on the Blackland Prairie, although there were many small shops in both regions that used only hand tools until their demise in the mid-1870s. By 1860 at least six East Texas shops were using animal-powered machinery, and at least two Blackland Prairie shops had installed steam engines. William Sheppard's shop at Tyler provides a good example of the process of mechanization. Sheppard was a Kentuckian who moved to Tyler in the mid-1850s and opened a one-man shop equipped with hand tools. By 1860 he was in partnership with J. C. Rogers; they described themselves as "Furniture Merchants and Cabinet Makers." They had a horse-powered lathe and three employees who made bedsteads, wardrobes, and bureaus, and their retail department sold furniture made in other shops. By 1870 they had moved to a new location several miles from Tyler, called Mechanicsville, where they had a fifteen-horsepower steam engine, four lathes, two boring machines, a tennoning machine, and ten employees, who made $5,500 worth of furniture that year. By 1880, however, Sheppard and Rogers had gone out of business. Other leading East Texas cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Abner Stith, Henderson, 1848–52; George W. Blake, San Augustine, 1850–70; J. George Woldert, San Augustine, 1842–55; Ransom Horn, San Augustine, 1850–60; Frederick Wolz, Marshall, 1851–71; W. J. Foster, Crockett, 1860–70; Hugh Hopkins, Huntsville, 1856–68; and Frank Creager, Huntsville, 1860–74. The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville also manufactured furniture using convict labor.
Mechanization made Paris, on the Blackland Prairie in Lamar County, the cabinetmaking center of Texas in the 1870s. The 1870 census reported that Willet Babcock's shop there used horse-powered machinery and employed twelve men and three women to make $7,900 worth of furniture that year, including 400 bedsteads. Babcock installed an eighteen-horsepower steam engine in 1875; by 1880 he employed thirty-two in Paris and owned a smaller factory in Clarksville. Both factories closed when he died in 1881. A second Paris shop, owned by James W. Rodgers, employed four men and produced $2,600 worth of furniture in 1870. Rodgers added steam power in 1879 and attached a lumber-planing mill to his furniture factory. He died in 1891, but the company was reorganized as the Rodgers-Wade Furniture Company and was still in business a century later. Most local cabinetmakers, however, were unable to compete with midwestern factories, even though they mechanized, and when the railroad made midwestern products widely available in the late 1870s they closed their shops. Other leading Blackland Prairie cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were James B. Shanahan, Clarksville, 1844–57; Jasper Longe, Clarksville, 1860–83; W. T. Skinner, Carter (Denton County), 1858–62; H. P. Davis, Fairfield, 1858–62; William W. Smith, White Oak (Hopkins County), 1850–60; W. B. Crawford, Mesquite (Navarro County), 1858–62; Peter Wetsel, McKinney, 1849–70; Isaac Crouch, McKinney, 1866–71; James Foster, Mantua (Collins County), 1868–72; John H. Spading, Waxahachie, 1860–78; Moses Mock, Hillsboro, 1868–72; James R. Manning, Sulphur Springs, 1868–72; and William Anderson, Waco, 1860–82.
In contrast to the Blackland Prairie, the Brazos-Colorado region was relatively small but densely populated and, before the Civil War, wealthy. The large amount of furniture made in that region reflects that wealth, as well as the region's abundance of hardwood timber, in its construction and sophistication. In the 1850s and 1860s the cabinetmaking trade in the region was dominated by German immigrants, who did not mechanize their shops. The rapid extension of the railroad into the region following the Civil War brought about a decline in local cabinetmaking, but some shops continued to make furniture on a small scale there until the mid-1880s. Leading cabinetmakers in the region, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Heinrich Umland, Bellville, 1850–69; Johann Umland, Chappell Hill, 1854–81; Helmut Conrad Kroll, Chappell Hill, 1858–60; Caspar Witteborg, Chappell Hill, 1854–66, and Brenham, 1866–77; Charles Blank, Brenham, 1858–82; Joseph Massanari, Brenham, 1868–72; Heinrich Harigel, La Grange, 1851–92; Frederick Buntzel, Cat Spring, 1854–72; Gottfried Buescher, Industry, 1859–76; and H. Spencer Huby, Hempstead, 1855–62.
Galveston flourished as a cabinetmaking center in the late 1840s and early 1850s, but it was also a major furniture-importing center where showrooms advertised furniture from New York and sold it to wealthy customers as far inland as San Antonio, Gonzales, and Austin. Leading Galveston cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Daniel Lochied, 1848–52; Helmut Conrad Kroll, 1848–58; Johann Friedrich Ahrens, 1845–70; and Ernest Beck, 1868–72. Because of the availability of imported furniture, cabinetmaking in Galveston declined in the mid-1850s.
Although Austin had a small cabinetmaking industry from its founding in 1839, it was not until the end of the 1850s, when it had ten cabinet shops, that it emerged as a cabinetmaking center. By 1870 there were two large shops in Austin, still using hand tools but making $9,000 worth of furniture between them, as well as several smaller shops. The railroad arrived the next year, and by 1880 there was no one in the city who described himself as a cabinetmaker. Austin's leading cabinetmakers, and the approximate dates during which they worked, were Thomas Bostick, 1854–58; J. W. England, 1858–68; W. W. Evans, 1866–72; and Joseph Hannig, 1865–72. Hannig was the husband of Susanna W. Dickinson, one of the survivors of the Alamo.
From an aesthetic point of view, some of the finest nineteenth-century Texas furniture was made by the German-born cabinetmakers of the Hill Country, who worked in comparative isolation from Anglo-American society until well into the 1880s. In the 1850s and 1860s Fredericksburg had an intense concentration of cabinetmakers who made furniture for German settlers throughout the Hill Country. The Hill Country shops were operated on a carefully circumscribed scale, none of them employing more than one person or using power machinery. Many of them were trained in the guild systems of Europe and held master cabinetmaker's papers. For example, Johann Michael Jahn, who had a shop in New Braunfels from 1844 until his death in 1883, served as an apprentice in Prague and received his Tischlermeister's (master tablemaker's) papers in Switzerland. Franz Stautzenberger, who made furniture at Clear Spring in Guadalupe County, was employed as a cabinetmaker at the court of the Duke of Nassau before coming to Texas in 1845. The Hill Country cabinetmakers often made highly sophisticated furniture, working largely in walnut and pine. They developed a distinct regional style, and their furniture is easily recognizable. The leading Fredericksburg cabinetmakers and the approximate dates during which they worked were Frederick Winkel, 1845–52; Friedrich Gentmann, 1860–70; Johann Adam Kunz, 1845–61; William Leilich, 1845–70; Johann Martin Loeffler, 1859–92; John Petri, 1858–62; Christof Shaeper, 1845–72; Jacob Schneider, 1853–72; Christian Staats, 1845–85; John Peter Tatsch, 1852–85; and Carl Wendler, 1858–62. Other leading Hill Country cabinetmakers outside of Fredericksburg, in addition to Jahn and Stautzenberger, were Eugen Ebensberger, New Braunfels, 1860–70, and Heinrich Scholl, New Braunfels, 1846–80.
Interest in collecting Texas furniture begun in the late 1930s, when there was a general interest in regional American decorative arts. Jean Pinckney and Pauline A. Pinckney of Austin and Ted James of San Antonio were early collectors. In the 1960s Ima Hogg and Mrs. Charles L. Bybee formed major collections, which are housed, respectively, at the Winedale Historical Center and at Henkel Square, both at Round Top in Fayette County. The San Antonio Museum Association also has a significant collection. The Pioneer Museum in Fredericksburg has an excellent collection of tools used by Hill Country cabinetmakers.