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Thorning Revisited


Employment at factory never reached pre-war levels

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


(This is the third column of a four-part series on Mundell furniture company.)

The 1910 era was a boom period for the Mundell firm. Employment rose from 50 in 1898, to 80 in 1902, to 210 in 1911.

The work week was 55 hours: 10 hours a day Monday to Friday, plus five hours on Saturday morning. Most of the time a night shift was scheduled as well.

The firm was now incorporated, with shares sold to a number of Elora residents, including some of the employees, to help raise new capital for expansion.

Demand for furniture continued to be strong through most of the First World War. In addition, the Mundell firm received contracts for shell boxes from the army. The biggest problem was a shortage of labour. For the first time in the firm’s history, women were recruited for factory work.

At the time of WWI, the John C. Mundell Co. was the dominant force in the Elora economy, and its furniture had achieved a national reputation. Major orders included the furniture for Macdonald College in Quebec, and for the new King Edward Hotel in Toronto.

The 1920s were years of consolidation for the John C. Mundell Co. There were improvements to the factories, but employment never reached its pre-war high of 210. A major objective of the firm was to pay off the mortgages taken out to finance pre-war construction.

Two developments during the 1920s were significant in the firm’s history. The first was the popularity of the Kiddie Kar.

In 1916 Mundell had secured the Canadian rights to manufacture the Kiddie Kar, a small wooden tricycle for young children. The old Potter Foundry building was fitted up for this product, and the name has stuck to the building ever since.

The Kiddie Kar was so popular that production was increased in 1926. Mundell purchased the woodworking equipment of the former Raymond Sewing Machine Co. in Guelph for use in the Kiddie Kar factory. Power was provided by a separate boiler room and engine. Thomas Q. Biggar, former proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, was hired as a salesman for the Kiddie Kar.

The other major development of the 1920s was the major extension and renovation of the Mill Street site. The Mill Street plant was a hodge-podge of buildings, some dating back to 1860. (This is the building at the north east corner of Mill and Price Streets, currently under reconstruction by Pearle Hospitality.)

Mundell constructed a new front of stone along the street, giving the appearance of one continuous building, and giving a decidedly 19th-century look to the structure. It was construction on the cheap, but this was necessary, as competition in the furniture industry became stiffer through the 1920s.

The office was now in new quarters on Mill Street, in the office vacated by the Traders Bank. (This had originally been the office of private bankers Farran and Archibald, and is now the Café Creperie restaurant, 40 Mill St. W.) The upstairs of the office was fitted up as a showroom, intended for wholesale buyers, rather than the general public.

In 1927, the Mundell holdings in Elora were completed with the purchase of the old Commercial Hotel building, beside the Mill Street plant. (This is currently the Gorge Cinema.) Part of the upholstery department was moved into these quarters.

Mundell’s products, particularly his cheaper lines, remained popular through the early years of the Depression, and the factories were working overtime as late as 1931.

The guiding hand of the head of the firm was lost in 1931, when John C. Mundell passed away at the age of 68. He had been involved in the business for 51 years, and was its dominant force for 46, though illness had restricted his activities in the late 1920s.

Somewhat reclusive, he was not as popular as his father had been, but he was still respected by the workforce and the community. Factories and stores in Elora were closed the day of his funeral.

He never took an active role in politics. His principal community activity was as an organizer of the Elora Lawn-bowling Club. The proudest moment of his life had come in 1924, when he had been presented to King George V at Wembly, England, where he was showing examples of his furniture at the British Empire Exhibition.

By the time of Mundell’s death, most of the day-to-day management of the firm was handled by Art Badley. He had been the accountant of the Royal Bank branch in Elora when he was recruited in 1919 by Mundell. He remained the key man in the office until 1954, piloting the firm through difficult years.

The new president of the firm was Mundell’s nephew, Harry Herbert. Very sociable and a salesman by training, he handled most of the negotiations with buyers and suppliers. Herbert also bought up many of the shares of the company, and soon had a controlling interest.

The key office employee from about 1910 until the 1950s was Carrie Gordon, who ruled office routine with an iron hand during her lengthy career with the firm.

An early example of what today would be called a career women, she acquired a total mastery of the firm’s business affairs, and could have taken over direction of the company if called upon to do so. Undoubtedly, she felt some frustration at her lack of advancement.

The later years of the 1930s were hard ones for the firm, and employment stabilized at about 100. The Mundell firm had always been reluctant to lay off workers, and this policy continued. Wages were low compared to those in neighbouring towns, ranging from 18 to 40 cents per hour, with some workers on piecework.

The firm tried to smooth out business cycles by building furniture for inventory. This was an inefficient use of capital, but it kept the skilled workforce relatively intact. As well, there was a competitive advantage.

When demand increased or orders were received, Mundell’s could ship from stock while competitors struggled to get back in production.

During the Second World War, the firm turned out a vast quantity of furniture for the armed forces. The major post-war accounts continued to be Eaton’s and Simpson’s. A salesman was still on the payroll; Mundell furniture was sold as far away as Woodward’s department store in Vancouver.

Although the Simpson’s and Eaton’s accounts were large, they had the disadvantage of discouraging aggressive marketing of the company’s wares. The major sales effort was participation in the Toronto furniture show each January.

The early 1950s saw a major boom in consumer goods, but the Mundell firm was not participating fully in it.

Competition in the furniture industry was fierce, and Mundell’s had the disadvantage of obsolete buildings and equipment, and the nuisance of operating a business from several locations. Labour was becoming a problem, with higher-paying jobs available to those willing to commute to Guelph.

As well, the old intimacy between management and workers that went back to the days of John Mundell Sr. was breaking down with the organization of a union.

Changes were obviously coming, but they would be far more dramatic than anyone expected.

(Next week: The final three decades of the Mundell story.)

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 29, 1991.


Vol 51 Issue 01


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