GRIFFITH, JOHN, chair-manufacturer and shopkeeper; m. 18 Aug. 1825 Sarah McGinnis in Montreal, and they had ten children; fl. 1825–47.
John Griffith’s origins and the date of his arrival in Montreal are obscure. His name does not appear in the Montreal directory of 1819 but by 1825, when he was married by the Reverend John Bethune* of Christ Church, he was described as a “resident of this place.” It is unlikely that he was in business for himself in 1825. Within a few years, however, he had established a chair manufactory in the faubourg Quebec, one of Montreal’s eastern suburbs. That his manufactory existed in the early 1830s is indicated by his trade cards or furniture labels; they were supplied by George Perkins Bull, a printer who worked in Montreal from 1831 to 1833.
Early Montreal chair-makers (as distinct from cabinet-makers, who worked in finer, often imported woods) produced inexpensive furniture that needed paint or varnish as a finish. They therefore almost always dealt also in paints, and Griffith followed that practice. He had begun work as a painter – he was so described at the time of his marriage – and his furniture label stressed this aspect of his activities: “John Griffith, house, sign and ornamental painter, chair maker &c.” Over the years he continued to offer sign painting, “neatly executed,” as one of his services. He sold paints of all kinds, including artists’ supplies, but it was as a manufacturer of painted furniture, particularly chairs, that he sought to achieve prominence. In the 1830s his occupational listing in official records changed from painter to chair-maker.
By 1840 Griffith had not only a factory in the suburbs, but also a large rented furniture warehouse on Rue Saint-Paul, then Montreal’s main shopping area. He launched into the wholesale as well as the retail trade. In 1843 he was advertising a stock of 2,000 chairs: cane-seated, rush-seated, and Windsor. He kept on hand bedsteads, tables, and wash-stands, and was the maker of what were called “fancy chairs.” Occasional traces of the original painted decoration on these fancy chairs indicate top rails embellished with fruit or flower designs. The turned legs were sometimes meant to simulate bamboo, an imitation that would, when the chairs were new, have been emphasized by the paint work. “Many different patterns” of chairs, all warranted of superior quality, was the theme of his advertisements. He held trade auctions when as many as 700 chairs were sold at a time Few Montreal chair-makers of the first half of the 19th century identified their work in any way, a fact that now makes attributions hazardous. Griffith used printed labels, some of which have survived intact on the undersides of the chairs, and he also branded many of his pieces, “griffith/montreal.” He worked at a period when a number of chair-makers were active in Montreal, but with both a factory and a sales outlet he had facilities few of his rivals could claim. That he was well thought of by fellow workers in the trade is indicated by his appearance as a witness at baptisms and burials for a number of chair- or cabinet-makers or members of their families. Although he had been married in the Anglican faith and had his first five children baptized at Christ Church, he later turned to the St James Street Methodist Church, where many of his fellow chair- and cabinet-makers, including John Hilton*, were members.
For more than a dozen years Griffith’s business prospered. He also invested in real estate. In 1846 six “valuable” building lots owned by him were offered for sale. That sale was probably a portent of financial difficulties. The next year the lease of his warehouse on Rue Saint-Paul, a “first-rate Stand” for business, was put up for auction. Griffith was bankrupt: his household furniture and all his stock were sold. There was one last echo of his days in the Montreal furniture trade. In 1850 a William Griffith who may have been his eldest son was operating a paint shop at the old address on Rue Saint-Paul, but that venture was brief.
Griffith came to the chair-making trade with large ambitions. It was his misfortune that chair-making as distinct from cabinet-making was on the way out. By the 1860s the Montreal directories, in their classification of trades, no longer regularly included chair-making as a separate category. The cabinet-maker who could offer both cheap chairs and fine furniture had already begun to absorb the chair business by the 1840s. Steam factories replaced the type of workshop Griffith had established in the 1830s. For a while, however, his name had loomed large in the Montreal trade.
ANQ-M, CE1-63, 18 août 1825, 21 mai 1826, 3 févr. 1828, 28 mars 1830, 9 avril 1831; CE1-109, 22 juin, 17 juill. 1833; 10 sept. 1835; 6 avril 1837; 17 avril 1839; 3 janv. 1844. La Minerve, 29 mai 1843. Montreal Gazette, 20 Aug. 1825; 5 Nov. 1831; 2 March, 6 April 1833; 9 May 1844; 24 May 1845; 28 April, 20 Oct. 1847; 21, 31 May 1849. Montreal Transcript, 2 April 1840; 14 Sept. 1843; 9, 14 May, 8 Oct. 1844; 2 May 1846; 24 April 1847. Pilot (Montreal), 15 April 1848. Montreal directory, 1842–47. Elizabeth Collard, “Montreal cabinetmakers and chairmakers, 1800–1850: a checklist,” Antiques (New York), 105 (January–June 1974): 1132–46.