In 1886, Robert J. Horner set up his business at 61-65 West 23rd Street in Manhattan. What made his marketing plan unique is that he targeted not only wealthy New Yorkers who were seeking to furnish or redecorate their homes, but those of more moderate means as well. The company specifically referenced "First-class and Medium Quality Furniture" in its advertising at the time. In this way, Horner took up where J&J.W. Meeks had left off in 1868.
An article in The New York Times written within the year the firm opened noted that Horner reproduced "European novelties," but was also an innovator with new designs and always on the cusp of emerging trends. The feature also noted that the company manufactured all its goods at that time. It used fine mahogany and oak hardwoods to produce high style pieces that remain extremely popular with Victorian furniture enthusiasts today.
Early items made by the firm included Louis XVI style drawing room suites, ornately carved oak dining sets, and a variety of bedroom furniture. This manufacturer is also known for its two-sided partner’s desks, hall trees, parlor sets, and high quality upholstered pieces.
During the 1890s, the company also made stained maple furniture inspired by Japanese furnishings. These pieces with a light yellow tint seemed to be for use in more informal settings when compared to the firm’s more lavish designs, according to rarevictorian.com.
On the upper floors of Horner’s business were the showrooms, which set the standard for displaying complete rooms of furniture still seen in today’s retail outlets. They were designed to give young homemakers direction in "how they should set about furnishing their houses."
In 1887, the company began advertising a pamphlet available to its customers entitled "Our American Homes and How to Furnish Them." Not only did this leaflet provide decorating tips, but it also featured several items available to consumers through the business. This is reportedly the only known advertising ephemera produced by Horner, or at least the only one Victorian furniture historians have discovered thus far.
By 1891, Horner was also importing goods such as Venetian sideboards and Louis XV style writing desks, among other home furnishings. These items were advertised by Horner as being made abroad expressly for the New York store.
Horner in 1893 and Beyond
The Financial Panic of 1893, the worst economic crisis America had known at the time, greatly impacted most businesses of non-essential goods. R.J. Horner & Co. was no exception. Horner himself saw new furniture as a luxury and completely understood the need to persevere through the economic downturn.
To draw potential customers into the store, however, the Princess Metternich salon that had previously been on display at the Chicago Exposition was installed in the store. The New York Times reported that the walls and ceilings of the recreated room of royalty were made of painted tapestry panels finished with white and gold. The furnishings within were equally as grand.
In spite of this marketing ploy, Horner admitted that it didn’t draw new business as furniture was "very much a luxury" during those lean times. He saw holding steady as the best course of action until the economy improved in all sectors and consumer confidence followed suit. This eventually did happen, and the business began to thrive once again.
But another setback occurred in 1904 when part of the building was destroyed by fire, and the factory part of the building suffered between $50,000 and $75,000 in damage. Horner bucked up and repaired the damaged section of the building, but the neighborhood surrounding the business was continuing to evolve with more and more of the shops that drew customers to the area moving north in the city. By 1913, the company relocated its operation to 36th Street near Fifth Avenue.
R.J. Horner then merged with George Flint’s company to form Horner and Flint in 1915. Robert Horner Jr. managed the business at the time, and his father went on to retire. Obituaries showing great respect are on record stating that the elder Horner passed away in 1922 at the age of 68 after suffering a brief illness.
Identifying R.J. Horner Furniture
Nailed porcelain plaques identifying the manufacturer can be found on some Horner pieces, according to information provided by Christie’s and relayed through rarevictorian.com. Paper labels indicating the origin can also be found attached to some pieces made in the Horner factory or imported by the firm, although many of these were removed or wore away over time. Others are identified by the style of the carving when labels are not present.
The shallow carving on some R.J. Horner furniture is fairly distinctive as it covers the majority of the surface on those pieces. Many items included winged griffins (as shown in the piece above), gargoyles, dolphins, cherubs, caryatids, and extensive gadrooning, which were all popular furniture embellishments during the late 1800s revived from earlier periods. These carvings are of high quality, but not unique when compared to the work of other Victorian furniture manufacturers doing business in competition with Horner.
Take care when buying furniture marketed as R.J. Horner by dealers and auctioneers. Some sellers confuse the work of this manufacturer with that of Robert Mitchell (of Mitchell & Rammelsberg) due to their similar styles.