On February 13, 1972, one of the front page stories in the Youngstown Vindicator was titled “GF is Struggling in Financial Vise.” The “vise” was rising labor costs and price ceilings determined by growing competition. The story discusses measures the company was taking from strengthening its sales efforts to dispersing its plants in the hope of lowering labor costs. It mentioned that this was raising questions about the security of the 4200 factory jobs in Youngstown. Only one of eight new products had been assigned to Youngstown in recent years. This was a warning signal of what was to come. My father-in-law retired from GF about this time, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall. Many furniture lines were discontinued. By 1989 the company was bankrupt, purchased by TANG Industries of Gallatin, TN. They renamed it GF Office Furniture Ltd. That company was dissolved in 2008, bringing to an end an illustrious Youngstown-based manufacturer, once a world leader in office furniture.
The company began in 1902 by Herbert White. Initially, they manufactured fireproof construction materials, perhaps explaining the origins of the name. During the Panic of 1907, they pivoted to focusing on steel office furniture. They started with a four draw vertical file in 1910 followed by a fireproof safe in 1912. In 1923, they decided to implement an assembly line approach to manufacturing steel office desks. In 1925, they introduced their 1600 Series, that they continued to make with updates until the 1970’s. My wife still has one of these desks that her father bought her when she was in school.
The ALCOA Company introduced the first aluminum chair in 1925. By 1929 General Fireproofing began manufacturing aluminum office chairs that they call “Goodform.” They added the Comfort Master executive office chair line in 1937. By the end of World War II, Youngstown was the largest aluminum working district in the country with General Fireproofing as one of the anchors.
During the war, General Fireproofing, like many factories, was converted to war production, manufacturing aircraft parts. They quickly converted back to office furniture after the war, reaching pre-war sales levels by 1946. In 1948, they introduced their Mode-Maker line of office furniture, designed by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy, featuring streamlined, flowing lines and curves rather than sharp corners. We also had one of these desks, pictured below, now residing at my son’s home.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, General Fireproofing was the industry leader in office desks, shelving, file cabinets, and aluminum office chairs. They furnished railroad passenger cars and sailing ships in the heyday of these modes of transport.
Sadly, competitors making cheaper and inferior equipment challenged that industry dominance. By 1990, the once bustling industrial complex that comprised General Fireproofing was idled for good, and has sat unoccupied, slowly deteriorating ever since. This drone footage, shot in 2019 is both sad, and still suggests the once-great factories on these grounds.
The company is now defunct and their buildings decaying. But their furniture is virtually indestructible. It’s not contemporary, but it works. File drawers still open and close smoothly. Desk drawers close properly. Many have taken their furniture to auto paint shops and gotten them refinished. Our desk is still the original gun metal grey. We also have a like-new set of file drawers. They remind us of a time when design and quality workmanship mattered. They remind us of a once great company that shipped its products all over the world–from Youngstown.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!