ARMSTRONG, GEORGE, furniture manufacturer and undertaker; b. in 1821 in County Armagh (Northern Ireland), son of George Armstrong; m. about 1844 Margaret Longmoore; there were no children; d. 22 Sept. 1888 in Montreal, Que.
George Armstrong arrived in Montreal with his family at the age of 13. He was apprenticed to the firm of Bethune and Kittson, cabinet-makers and auctioneers, and on the expiry of his apprenticeship may have worked for a while as a journeyman. By 1851 he had managed to found his own business on St Urbain Street. He was burned out of his first premises, however, and moved to Victoria Square, one of the choicest business areas of Montreal in the 1860s. After another fire he erected in 1864 an impressive structure there, housing a factory, showrooms, and a funeral establishment. His three-storey, later four-storey, building with corner frontage was regarded as an architectural ornament to the square and a tribute to a man who had succeeded in Canada “by steady industry and perseverance.”
Armstrong never achieved the reputation attained by John Hilton*, the acknowledged head of the Montreal cabinet trade. Armstrong, however, saw and met the need for furniture that was, as he himself described it, “really good and cheap.” With Montreal’s population expanding rapidly in the second half of the century, there was a growing market for the furniture Armstrong competently supplied. Though his output was by no means limited to inexpensive articles – “finely carved” chairs, “handsome” bookcases, and “very superior chamber sets” came from his workrooms – his increasing emphasis was on sturdy “cottage furniture” and such mass-produced goods as cane-bottomed chairs. At the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 his firm showed folding cots and Shaker chairs. This bid for overseas recognition proved successful: the exhibit was sold out and an English agent secured. Shaker chairs (plain, straight-backed chairs, with or without rockers) became so important a part of the firm’s production that a slogan was painted on the factory declaring that no house was complete without one of Armstrong’s Shaker chairs.
Like most Montreal furniture manufacturers Armstrong dealt also in imports, although the bulk of his stock was made on the premises. By holding winter sales he was able to clear his warerooms, and in his own words “to keep all hands working, as usual, during the severe winter months.” The ensuring of steady employment for his men was a humane policy, in keeping with Armstrong’s deep religious convictions. He was a trustee of St James Methodist Church and a supporter of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Society. The diary of another Montreal cabinetmaker, William Peacock, reveals it was at Armstrong’s rooms that a group of Methodists met to pray on 26 Feb. 1871 before setting out on a 60-mile journey by sleigh to promote missionary work “in the country called the Gore or Lashuit” (Lachute). Armstrong himself accompanied the expedition.
George Armstrong died suddenly on 22 Sept. 1888. It was estimated after his death that he had “made a fortune of about $200,000,” a far greater sum than most Montreal furniture manufacturers acquired at the time. Like many 19th-century cabinet-makers Armstrong was also engaged in the funeral business, and it was this side of his business that was to endure. He had admitted his nephew, William Armstrong, into partnership in 1877, and although William eventually gave up all connection with furniture manufacturing the funeral establishment remained in the family for over a century.
The diary of William Peacock and family papers are in the possession of W. G. Armstrong (Montreal). Arch. of the Irish Protestant Benevolent Soc. (Montreal), Annual reports, 1888–89. St James United Church (Montreal), Register of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 25 Sept. 1888. Charles Tupper, Report . . . on the Canadian section of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at South Kensington, 1886 (Ottawa, 1887), 44. Gazette (Montreal), 16 July 1860; 6 May 1863; 17 April 1865; 16 Feb., 19 Dec. 1867; 1 Sept. 1875; 1 Dec. 1876; 24 Sept. 1888. Montreal Daily Witness, 22, 24 Sept. 1888. The Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886; official catalogue of the Canadian section (2nd ed., London, 1886), 216. C. E. Goad, Atlas of the city of Montreal from special survey and official plans, showing all buildings & names of owners (Montreal, 1881), xii. Montreal directory, 1847–48, 1850–1976. Industries of Canada; city of Montreal; historical and descriptive review; leading firms and moneyed institutions (Montreal, 1886), 136. G. E. Jaques, Chronicles of the St. James St. Methodist Church, Montreal, from the first rise of Methodism in Montreal to the laying of the corner-stone of the new church on St. Catherine Street (Toronto, 1888), 8, 90. Montreal business sketches with a description of the city of Montreal, its public buildings and places of interest, and the Grand Trunk works at Point St. Charles, Victoria bridge, &c., &c. (Montreal, 1864), 136–37. Elizabeth Collard, “Montreal cabinetmakers and chairmakers, 1800–1850: a check list,” Antiques (New York), 105 (January–June 1974): 1137, 1142.