History

 

Val-kill. Val-kill Industries. Val-kill furniture. Val-kill pewter. A great many people are unfamiliar with what these words mean. Some people may have seen furniture or pewter items stamped with Val-kill. It is a complicated and overlapping history of one of the business ventures of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and her home site in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Most people are some familiar with Eleanor Roosevelt, understanding that she was a very active political First Lady being Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife, or that she was a delegate to the United Nations. What few people know is that she was part owner of a small furniture factory and forge.

Making a Presidential Table for her husband.


Eleanor Roosevelt, with friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman built a home/retreat on FDRs’ estate with his help and encouragement and named it Val-kill Cottage, or Val-kill. At the same time the three women with Carolyn O’Day started a crafts style cottage business at the same site which they named Val-kill Industries. It started as a furniture factory in a second building near the first stone cottage and production began in 1926. There are several old magazine articles in this website which provides an accurate description of the business. Part of their goal was to produce fine hand made heirloom furniture, but by doing so they were acting on a larger social goal of providing a second income to local farming people in rural Hyde Park so as to keep them from migrating away to city jobs.

The furniture was colonial reproduction in shape and form and to most degree in its construction. Some was constructed of pine wood, but most was of hardwood such as cherry, maple or walnut. Most pieces were brand stamped with their hallmark: VAL-KILL. A second stamp was used with a double box around the word. Fewer pieces were stamped with the craftsman's first name: Otto, Frank, Arn, Karl, Wolf have been seen. Sometimes model numbers with letters were stamped. A very few pieces were stamped with Eleanor Roosevelt's signature and date.

Several types of household furniture was produced usually for living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms. They produced items sized for children. Val-kill Industries obtained wood from the White House and marketed useful souvenirs such as letter openers, letter holders and picture frames. These pieces may or may not be Val-kill hallmark stamped, but have a brass tag attached which states ” This wood was part of the White House roof erected about 1817 and removed in 1927.”

The furniture factory was of moderate success employing probably fewer than 30 people at any time. The factory lasted until 1936 having slowing sales during the depression of the early 1930s. There is an accompanying page with photographs of several representative examples.

A metal forge was begun as a separate entity of the Val-kill Industries in 1934. One of the apprentice wood workers, Arnold Berge, was taught metal smithing and the Forge was started in 1934. Many pewter objects were produced with some steel, copper and wrought iron as well. Kitchenware items such as plates, cups, tankards, chocolate pots, porringers, cake servers, utensils, bottle openers, pitchers, cheese knives, napkin rings, et al were produced. Another theme were desk items: letter openers, desk blotter corners, paper weights, letter holders, and ink wells. Other items produces were match box holders, lamps, playing card holders, cigarette holders, candle stick holders, vases.

These items were also hallmark stamped. There was a block lettered VAL-KILL or a circular stamped with “Val-kill Hyde Park, N.Y.” with an anvil in the center. Sometimes a "Berge" can be found. There is a page here also of photographs of several examples. The Forge lasted only until 1940, probably due to a dissolution of the friendship of the owners in 1938 and the scarcity of raw metal availability starting prior to World War II.

An even smaller portion of Val-kill Industries was the weaving of cloth on looms by Nellie Johannessen. She produced several cloths and fabrics, even made at least one suit for FDR. The owners had envisioned the making of braided and hooked rugs. Clifford Smith was taught these crafts, but it never came to fruition in the business.

Today we are unaware of any actual production records tallying numbers made. And as each piece was constructed mostly by hand and given the short duration of production years and the small amount of workers, it can be argued that these pieces are scarce. Coupled with the scarcity is the notoriety of association with the Roosevelt's that has given pieces significant value.

The Val-kill site evolved over the years. It was a part time home/retreat for Eleanor Roosevelt from 1/25 to 4/45. After the furniture factory closed in 1936 Eleanor converted it into her home in 1938. Nancy and Marion continued to live in the stone cottage until 1947. After FDRs death the site became Eleanor's fulltime residence. Many US political leaders and world wide dignitaries visited FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt there. In 1977 it was added to the National Park Service Hyde Park Historic sites in recognition of Eleanor Roosevelt's political and social accomplishments.

Probably the largest collection of Val-kill Industries furniture and pewter is found at the National Park Service in Hyde Park, N.Y. Within this website is a link to their website where you can obtain more information about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and Val-kill. The site is open for tours. Other museums also have representative Val-kill Industries pieces. They include the FDR Library in Hyde Park (National Archives), FDRs winter retreat “Little White House” at Warm Springs GA, New York State museum and the White House Historical Society. You can contact me for more information.

 


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