ANCELL, NATHAN S.; ETHAN ALLEN
AMERICAN FURNITURE HALL OF FAME
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
August 12, 1988
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
Bob Spelman, Interviewer
INTERVIEWER: Where are you from?
ANCELL: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I grew up in my very early years in Staten Island, New York, until about 1931. I lived in Manhattan until 1949 and then I moved to Westchester.
INTERVIEWER: When were you born?
ANCELL: I was born August 28, 1908.
INTERVIEWER: August 28, 1908. What about your early childhood? What are some of your early memories of school? Your aspirations? What did you want to do when you were a kid? Tell me about your mom and dad.
ANCELL: Both my mom and dad happened to be very, very philanthropic people who did a great deal of work every month of their life for charities.
INTERVIEWER: What did your dad do?
ANCELL: My dad was a wholesale hardware jobber and he sold to department stores and hardware stores throughout the greater metropolitan area.
INTERVIEWER: And your mom? He and your mom met when? And married when?
ANCELL: When my father came over here from Russia in about 1890, he met my mother when they were both about 12 or 13 years old. They became sweethearts then and later got married.
INTERVIEWER: They got married somewhere in the 1910s?
ANCELL: About then.
INTERVIEWER: Were you the only child?
ANCELL: No. My oldest sister was three years older than I am, then I came along, and then another girl came along five years younger than me.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to tell us their names?
ANCELL: My oldest sister’s name is Florence and she is the wife of the man who was my partner for 45 years, Ted Baumritter.
INTERVIEWER: Where does she live?
ANCELL: She lived in Manhattan. My younger sister’s name is Hazel and she lived for many years in Peekskill, New York, and is now a resident of Florida.
INTERVIEWER: When you were a kid, obviously your dad was an example to you. He was a self-made man for sure. He came over here with practically nothing, I suppose?
ANCELL: Less than nothing.
INTERVIEWER: Less than nothing. He got into the hardware business some way or another.
ANCELL: He started out as a salesman and he accumulated a little money. He opened up a little jobbing business. The jobbing business grew and prospered and became one of the leading jobbing concerns in the greater New York area. He was a man of great compassion and also great wisdom; a very soft, gentle man who was a very important inspiration in my life.
INTERVIEWER: He inspired you to be a philanthropist but before that, he inspired you to get an education.
ANCELL: Before that, he took great joy in my athletic prowess, which developed quite considerably in my early years. Athletics and sports and competition were extremely important to me.
INTERVIEWER: In what sport?
ANCELL: A number of them. Baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer. I devoted a lot of time and a lot of attention through high school and college to sports. I played baseball for Columbia University for four years. I played on the varsity basketball team for four years and I was first singles on the tennis team for four years.
INTERVIEWER: You were a good athlete before you went to college.
ANCELL: I was quite a good athlete.
INTERVIEWER: They didn’t have scholarships in those days like they do today.
ANCELL: Not like today. I was involved in sports through the time I was in college. When I was in high school I had aspirations of being a rabbi. I was extremely religious and devoted a good deal of time to the study of the Torah and various other Judaism philosophies. I was preparing myself to become a rabbi. When I got through college, my parents somewhat influenced me to choose some profession. They felt that a profession would be a better way for me to express a constructive life than maybe even serving in the rabbinate. So when I graduated college, I went to Columbia Law School and became a lawyer. I graduated Columbia Law School in 1931.
INTERVIEWER: 1931 – deep in the Depression.
ANCELL: In the very teeth of the Depression.
INTERVIEWER: Did you practice law?
ANCELL: I practiced law for about a year and a half.
INTERVIEWER: As an individual?
ANCELL: No, I was a member of a firm called Wise, Shepherd, Houghton and Levett. Their business was centered on serving the financial interests of stockbrokers and other people on Wall Street.
INTERVIEWER: You learned investments?
ANCELL: I didn’t learn an awful lot really. I was clerking and preparing myself to become a lawyer.
INTERVIEWER: What changed that?
ANCELL: My brother-in-law, Ted Baumritter –
INTERVIEWER: He was not your brother-in-law then, was he?
ANCELL: He was my brother-in-law then.
INTERVIEWER: What are the differences in your ages?
ANCELL: Ted is about 88 and he’s been married for almost 60 years. He was involved in a little selling business with Sam Salmanson and they sold unfinished furniture and other houseware items.
INTERVIEWER: That was an unfinished business?
ANCELL: Unfinished furniture and housewares. They represented factories. In the beginning of 1932, they agreed to disagree. I was doing some work for them and they dissolved their business. Ted was bought out for a relatively small amount of money and he wanted to start his own business in 1932. The one thing he had to do was to make some trips around the country to try to get some lines to sell.
I volunteered to go up and take charge of the little space he rented at 1107 Broadway in New York. It was about 1,100 square feet and we paid 32 cents a square foot for the space. I took a two-week vacation from the law office and I went up to hire a girl for him; someone who would be a telephone operator and maybe welcome some of the buyers who might have stopped in to wish him well.
He got back at the end of two weeks. I had a few things to clean up so I stayed another two weeks. That led to a third two weeks and then we decided that we would stay together for four or five months to see whether we could live with each other. If so, I would match his capital and we would start a business. That’s what happened. We stayed together for four or five months. We got along quite well. I matched his small capital and we started a company called T. Baumritter Company.
INTERVIEWER: T. Baumritter.
ANCELL: We took his name for the company because he had been involved for some years before that. The division of responsibility from that point on was that he was the outside man in the market selling and so on, and I was the man who ran the inside of the business and developed the factories that we were going to work with and did all of the back of the business.
We had what was known then as a drop-shipment jobbing business. Drop-shipment jobbing meant that while we did not own any factories, I would go to some factories and take a sample of the little magazine rack or end table or whatever it was that we wanted to make and see if I could place an order for maybe 500 or 700 of that item. While the factory was making them, we would run out and sell them. We had one salesman and while it was being made, he would sell them. Then the factory would drop ship them to the people to whom we sold.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see. You gave them a list of customers.
ANCELL: We’d send them the shipping order to R.H. Macy or anybody else. They would ship to that party and bill us. We would then bill the dealer. They called that a drop-shipment jobbing business. In the years of the early and late ’30s, there were a number of drop-shipment jobbers around the country who acted more or less as middlemen for a lot of the factories who were closed and not doing very well.
INTERVIEWER: You were actually generating that business because you selected the items that you thought the marketplace would need, right?
ANCELL: Right. Correct. We would pick the items.
INTERVIEWER: You were a middleman; you weren’t a rep for the factory.
ANCELL: No, no.
INTERVIEWER: You were a contractor.
ANCELL: We were running our own business. We would pick the items we wanted to make and then we would go to the appropriate factories and give them a contract to send quantity. We’d go out and sell them when we got a sample. The factory would drop ship them. We’d give them further orders and maybe develop the line.
Our very, very best selling item in those first years from 1933 to 1935 was a three-legged end table with cross stretchers at the bottom and the size of the end table was 12 by 12 inches deep and 24 inches wide. It was knocked down, packed one in a carton. We sold it to the retail stores for 37 and 1/2 cents each and it retailed for 69 cents. We sold hundreds and hundreds and hundreds a week.
INTERVIEWER: What did you say that retailed for?
ANCELL: Retailed for 69 cents. You’re laughing now, but...
INTERVIEWER: No, I’m laughing because in contrast with today, it’s ludicrous.
ANCELL: We had a beautiful little magazine rack made out of solid walnut, which we retailed for 95 cents. That was a very expensive item. Then we had a solid walnut bookcase about 54 inches high and 36 inches wide with graduated shelves all made out of solid walnut, which we sold for $1.75. It retailed for $3.95. Those were the kind of values that existed in those days.
This will give you another illustration of it. This could all be very interesting for something like the Hall of Fame. We bid for Bloomingdale’s on 300 bedroom suits in 1933: a 44-inch three-drawer solid maple dresser with a beautiful large mirror; a six-drawer chest of drawers; and a beautiful early American bed with a post of 2 and 1/2 inches. We bid $15.75 and we got the order. Bloomingdale’s retailed that bedroom suit for $29.95. They sold out in two weeks and they asked us to bid on another order and we lost the next order to another company that bid $15.35 for the whole bedroom set.
Other comparable values were just about like that in those days because most of the factories were closed and those few that were open were desperate for an order. In those days, the factories we worked with and most general factories paid 7 cents an hour for a 72-hour week, which meant that somebody putting in a 72-hour week would get just a few pennies over $5 a week for 72 hours of labor – six, 12-hour days. Incidentally, I have a number of the ads that were run then.
INTERVIEWER: I can see that. You were going through the worst part of the Depression.
ANCELL: Right. I just took us from 1932 to the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936. At that time, I was ready to go back to the law business because I saw no real future in the drop-shipment jobbing business – being more or less a middleman between manufacturing and retailing.
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask a question before we leave it. When you were in the law firm and were clerking, what was your salary? Do you remember?
ANCELL: I sure remember because I got a job and my salary was $5 per week. Most of the other graduates who graduated with me from Columbia in 1931 could not get a job even for zero pay. Five dollars a week was not a bad job to get in 1931.
They didn’t want to participate with anybody. They just wanted to live their own lives. They were real independent people. Incidentally, that little group of people, maybe 60 or 70 folks, were the foundation stone for our total personnel relations in all the 53 years since then. They represented to us the absolute peak of the kind of employees that we wanted to have and that we wanted to motivate. That became the mother plan for all of our acquisitions after that time.
The plant was $25,000 with 150 acres of property. We only paid them $7,000 down and we had an $18,000 30-year mortgage at 1 percent interest. You might think that that wasn’t expensive at that time but we had a hell of a job raising the $7,000.
INTERVIEWER: What had they been making there before?
ANCELL: They were making beautiful early American furniture and hand-painted furniture since 1889. In the crash of 1929, they went under. They had not really kept their equipment up. They had not increased their efficiency or their ability to compete. From 1929 to 1938 or ’39, you really needed a hell of a lot of talent to compete with what little business there was available. They couldn’t make it and they went broke. Then they almost went broke again in 1936.
INTERVIEWER: It was ’36 and they were about to go under again.
ANCELL: They were about to go under again because they had no capital; they couldn’t meet the payroll. We put some money in to start with, of course, and then we began to borrow money from Continental Bank & Trust Company, which later on became part of Chemical Bank. We borrowed $3,000 first, then $5,000. Before a year and a half went by, we had pledged our lives to the bank. We had borrowed $90,000, all of which we had sent up to Beecher Falls to buy lumber and to rehabilitate the factory, buy a piece of equipment here and there. Had anything happened to Beecher Falls in 1937 or ’38, we’d have been packed up, too, because we owed the bank $90,000. I don’t think we had $50,000 of net worth at that time.
The collateral was the factory, which in those days wasn’t even worth much. The collateral was really the fact that a man by the name of Eddie Van Pelt, who was the senior officer at the branch of the Continental Bank, had faith and trust in Ted and me. That was basically why he loaned us money. He was one of the best business bankers we ever met because he stimulated us, motivated us, helped us. He gave us lots of wisdom at that time. He also loaned us money on the faith he had that we would be successful.
INTERVIEWER: What did you start making?
ANCELL: We started to make three different bedroom sets. We made one three-piece bedroom set with a dresser, mirror, chest, bed and night table for $23.50, less a 5.3 percent discount. That retailed for $49.95. In those days everything was step-up. You made a step-up on it. We made a three-piece bedroom set for $28.50 or $28.75 that retailed for $59. We made a little larger one, a third bedroom set, which we sold for $33.50 and it retailed for $79.
We went to Market with those three bedroom sets. We didn’t do very well because all the buyers in those days told us that they buy a similar one for a dollar or half a dollar less from somebody else. They never really looked at the quality of what we made; they never really opened the drawers. All they were interested in was something that looked like that for a little bit less price. We had a hell of a job selling those three bedroom suits.
INTERVIEWER: Where? Which Market? Chicago?
ANCELL: Chicago. We had 150 square feet of space at Chicago.
INTERVIEWER: And you didn’t do too well.
ANCELL: No, we didn’t do too well. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t do too well because the product was absolutely beautiful. The product was beautifully finished, beautifully made.
The customer needed storage space, but that was six drawers, or five drawers, or seven drawers. She needed storage space but that was secondary to the fact that what she really wanted was a very, very beautiful, lovely bedroom set. It was the environment – a lovely dining room or a lovely living room that would make her friends drop dead with envy, a dining room that’d be beautiful so that when guests or family came and had dinner, they would all say: “Oh, my goodness. How beautiful this dining room is. Did you do this yourself?”
Now a woman could not tell that to the furniture salesman in those days because the furniture salesman didn’t give a damn about that. All that the furniture salesman wanted to do was get rid of a bedroom set and dump it on her and get a contract so that she would come back to the store and pay a dollar a week for the rest of her life. There was no interest whatsoever on the part of the retail people in caring about a consumer’s need. They never even attempted to find out really what this woman wanted. But I found out. It was very, very clear to me that promoting three bedroom sets at 29, 39, 49 or 69 was not what a woman was going to want.
When I found those few simple, fundamental facts, it gave rise to our whole new business. In those days, I wrote about 40 or 42 pages of what I thought we would have to do in the next 50 years in order to be successful in business. It was all founded on the need and desire of a consumer for home furnishings. It was all founded on one simple fact: that everybody wanted a pretty, beautiful home environment. That was the foundation of everything we have done right up to the present day and probably for the next 50 years.
We were not in the lumber business. We were not selling lumber. We were not selling sofas. We were not selling furniture. We were selling what the furniture could do – what the furniture could do for a consumer, what it could do for her environments. We decided that we were going to be sellers of environment and we were going to sell a decorating service and not a product. We decided that in 1938 after the experience we had trying to sell those three bedroom sets. That really was the basis and foundation of the whole business, right up to the present.
INTERVIEWER: You had one factory. You changed your philosophy and had to get rid of those bedroom sets. Then what did you start doing? How did you attack this problem? How did you implement your objective?
ANCELL: Everything from that time on was very simple. It was so simple and so obvious what we had to do. If a woman wanted an environment, then we looked at the options. There are several different bedroom environments. There’s an environment in the master bedroom. If a woman has a couple of girls, there’s a little girl’s bedroom environment. If she’s got a couple of boys, there’s a little boy’s bedroom environment. If she happens to be lucky enough to have a guest room, there’s a guest room environment that she would be interested in. Knowing that, the next step was simple: we developed 39 pieces of bedroom furniture – the types of pieces that would accomplish these four different environments.
INTERVIEWER: You yourself were not a designer, were you?
INTERVIEWER: How did you determine what those pieces should look like?
ANCELL: It’s simple. It’s just using your common sense. In other words, in a master bedroom, there would be important pieces of furniture: a nice large dresser, a nice chest-on-chest or a large chest because the Mr. and Mrs. – the heads of the family – would have more clothes and more things in their room than in a guest room. There would be a big dresser, a big chest and a couple of very interesting large important-looking beds and a couple of interesting night tables that would take care of the master bedroom.
In the little girl’s room, common sense would tell you that you take a delicate little girl’s bed – a thin poster bed and a tall post – and a very interesting little dresser with a fancy mirror – a little girl’s mirror – and a little dressing table where she could sit in front of it and powder her nose or do a little make-up if she were 13 or 14. A little female bedroom set.
INTERVIEWER: Somebody had to draw these.
ANCELL: I did them. I was the chief designer and I read books. I read history books on furniture and I read a lot of the old beautiful books on design and furniture. I tried to develop a little expertise of what had been done over the years by good designers. Those books are still available and tell you all of that. It’s like going to college. You study it.
If a woman had a little boy and wanted to make a boy’s room, boys love to climb up on a bunk bed and they need a good, big tough chest of drawers. They need a big desk where they can have their kind of toys and do their kind of jigsaw puzzles and whatever else. That would be a boy’s room. It’s different than the little girl’s room.
The guest room might have two single beds because the guests might be two people who don’t want to sleep together in a full-sized bed. It would have just one storage piece, maybe a nice dresser and a nice mirror that would not be too large, but it would be just enough for an overnight or a few-nights guest.
In that group, we had a couple of pieces that would fit into the hallway like a little console. We had about 39 pieces of furniture that we developed as open-stock. If you’d like to see the original pamphlet, the flyer that we sent out, I’ll show it to you. Do you want to see it?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I’d like to see it.
ANCELL: It’s fascinating.
INTERVIEWER: Why didn’t you use the name Ethan Allen?
ANCELL: We had hired a young man who had a very famous colonial name, and we hired him just to run a machine. He was a machinist. He gave us the right to use his name. Before we introduced this collection of furniture, I was playing Gin Rummy one night at the local hotel in Colebrook, New Hampshire (which was the adjoining town to Beecher Falls) with the local doctor, Dr. Noys and our factory manager, Bill Morrisey and the owner of the hotel, Harry Dunn. Doc Noys said, “Would you like to meet somebody interesting tomorrow morning?” We said sure we would. He said “come to my house for breakfast,” which we did.
After breakfast, Doc Noys took us down the road about 10 miles to a series of little roadside cabins – my kids used to call them huts. They were named Holbrook’s Cabins. He took us into the house in the back summer kitchen. There we met Stewart Holbrook. Now Stewart Holbrook was a young man in his 20s. We found out Stewart Holbrook had worked at the Beecher Falls factory from the time he was 10 until the time he was 20. He worked in the factory, left, went to Oregon and became a writer. He wrote the first great biography of Ethan Allen, whose life he studied and was very deeply interested in. It still is the greatest biography of Ethan Allen that’s ever been written.
We told him what we were doing now and how we developed this open-stock collection of furniture and we had given it this colonial name. He said: “Why did you do that? Why don’t you call it Ethan Allen because Ethan Allen was known as the Father of Vermont? Vermont was the place where early American furniture was born. Ethan Allen was a very, very famous name and a euphonious name, easy to say. It would be perfectly natural for you to call your furniture Ethan Allen.” Immediately after he said that, we said: “Absolutely true. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t; we must.” So the name changed right there in the back kitchen to Ethan Allen. That’s how we got the name Ethan Allen.
We developed an open-stock collection. Before we developed this collection, I had become imbued with the idea of selling environment rather than product. We developed a bedroom that was our first effort at developing a collated bedroom. We took that first bedroom set we made at Beecher Falls for $23, less 5.3 percent, and I brought a spring, a mattress, a bedspread and two pillows. I went to Selig Chair and bought a boudoir chair for $2.15. We had a floor lamp next to the boudoir chair, a pair of draperies matching the bedspread, a night table and a lamp, and a 9 by 12 rug. All of this – the bedroom set, the spring and mattress, the bedspread, the pair of draperies, the boudoir chair, the floor lamp, the table lamp, the night table, the 9 by 12 rug, the whole room – we put out on a flyer. The cost of it was $52 and it retailed for $99. That was our first experiment with a fully-collated bedroom set.
INTERVIEWER: How did it go? Did it sell?
ANCELL: Oh, sure. How it sold! But we only could find a limited number of dealers who were willing to try to sell all of it together. Most of them said: “Go on home. Don’t bother us with all that crap – the bedspreads and the lamps and all that. Just sell us what we want to buy.” We said, “If you don’t want to buy it, don’t buy it. We’ll find somebody that’ll buy it.” So we found some customers who thought the idea was great and they bought it. We didn’t need a hell of a big volume in those days because we weren’t into big business as of yet. That was our first effort and a very meaningful effort in becoming a home furnishings company not just concentrating on furniture. That gave us the lead-in to develop bedspreads and draperies, lamps and pictures, mirrors and everything else that it takes to decorate a home. That was the significance of that first effort. It reinforced our desire to develop our business along the lines of making available a total environment for people. That was the fashioning of our future business.
The open-stock collection was very, very critical too. It was the first real open-stock collection that was ever made. It was critical because the logic of it was that if it was open-stock, people could continue to buy and eat out of that package and we would not have to change. We would be forced not to change it every six months like the furniture industry was doing back then; they’re still doing it now. We would have continuity in our business; it would enable us to manufacture the same thing over and over and get repetitive and get better prices and efficiency. The open-stock collection told people that they could continue to buy Ethan Allen over their lifetimes without having to be told that that was discontinued or no longer available so that they couldn’t buy another chair or an upper unit for a buffet; they wouldn’t feel that they couldn’t continue. That gave rise to the fact that we wanted people to become collectors of Ethan Allen, which was a very important business principal because it would tie consumers to us.
In those early years, it was very interesting to realize that we developed a concept of manufacturing. We knew then, when we developed this first open-stock collection that I showed you in this pamphlet, that we were going to have to have dining room, living room furniture and occasional furniture, pictures, mirrors, clocks, lamps, lighting – everything it took to furnish a home – rugs, draperies, bedspreads, wallpaper, everything. We knew that was the future of our business. It took us all these 50 years to develop these things. We knew that we would have to have multiple factories. Therefore we developed a concept of specialty manufacturing. In other words, we devoted one factory to a limited amount of goods so that they would be able to have continuity and repetitiveness and buy machinery and make the plant layout, conveyors, everything else devoted just to that. There’s a different technique in manufacturing chairs than there is for bedroom sets and so on. We developed a philosophy to have specialized furniture factories.
That’s why today we have 28 factories, each one of them specialists. One making maple bedroom, another making maple dining room, another making cherry bedroom, another making cherry dining room, another making tables, occasional pieces. We have now a very highly specialized collection of factories, which is probably the only factory concept like that in the United States. Most plants became very, very large and manufactured all of the furniture they made in one plant or two plants.
INTERVIEWER: How long did it take for this open-stock environment idea to penetrate the industry?
ANCELL: For our first showing, we took a special space on the 28th floor of the American Furniture Mart where we just showed this collection. We picked out dealers that we wanted to show it to who we thought would be compatible and would understand it. We took them secretly up the elevator to the 28th floor. They didn’t know what they were coming to see except that it was something new and beautiful. When they came up there, we had a beautiful little layout; it was nicely decorated, showing all of them – the master bedroom, the little girl’s bedroom and so on. They could see what the objective of the open-stock collection was.
They immediately would ask “what are the prices?” Our answer was: “All you have to know about the prices is that they are very modestly priced and we have four chests of drawers. One is a beginning chest, the next one is a step-up chest just like you’ve been selling, the third one is a chest-on-chest and then there’s an armoire. They’re merchandised beautifully. The dressers are a simple dresser and a double dresser and so on. They’re merchandised simply. It’s all merchandised and the prices are competitive and very, very modest. That’s all you’ve got to know.” That was the end of the pricing problem. We didn’t have to go into the fact that we were fifty cents lower or higher than somebody else. We were selling a concept, not the product.
INTERVIEWER: They had to commit to a certain amount of merchandise?
ANCELL: They had to commit to buying everything. They had to commit to making a layout on their floor that we supplied them with. It took 600 square feet. We said, “This is the way it should be laid out.” Some of them said: “Don’t tell us how to run our business. We’ll buy what we want and we know how to display it better than you do.” We said: “Maybe you do. But if you want to buy this, this is the only way we can sell it. You’ve got to take this layout.” We said goodbye to those who didn’t want to do it; we found enough people who said, “Okay, I’ll be glad to do it your way.”
One of the first companies was a guy by the name of Al Whitehead who was the general furniture merchandiser for R. H. White Company, which is no longer in existence, in Boston. He was one of our first customers. Another customer was Beatrice Alback of G. Fox in Hartford. It was mostly department stores in those days.
They allowed us to fix up their display. They did it according to our floor plan. That began to give us the philosophy that we had that told them how to merchandise and market our products. We felt that control of the industry in due time would have to pass from retailers to manufacturers, which is, of course, what’s happened over the last 30 years. In those days, control of the industry was in the hands of the Leverette Baumans and the Spear Company, all the big chains of baron robbers who sold borax furniture and really took advantage of consumers instead of helping consumers. Control of the business was in their hands and they told Bassett and everybody else what to make, for what price, what they would buy and when they would buy it. We were renegades.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure you were in those days. When was the special showing at the Market? Was that ’38 or was that ’40?
INTERVIEWER: 1939. That was the real start?
ANCELL: That was the real start.
INTERVIEWER: Then you started to build and these guys became Ethan Allen dealers.
ANCELL: Oh, no. There were a lot of other things. We established exclusive distribution in areas. We gave exclusive distribution because we felt that we wanted the full cooperation, the full dedication and full help of the dealer. We had to give him enough territory so that he could develop and be enthusiastic in his development of our business. We had developed the exclusive territory concept, which we built on.
INTERVIEWER: Were you geographically limited? The Chicago area was the only place in the United States to buy, right?
ANCELL: Our big business was in New England, New York state, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington because we could deliver there. We only had this one factory so most of our sales were in the New England area.
We also established the concept of consumer advertising. We took a single column in House Beautiful about 3 inches high and we had the name Ethan Allen.
INTERVIEWER: House & Garden, is that right?
ANCELL: House & Garden. We started consumer advertising because we also committed ourselves to establishing a brand name and maximizing the value of the brand name. That would be the confidence-developing factor to consumers. There were not very many brand names in the furniture industry in those days.
INTERVIEWER: Were you looked on as medium-priced in those days? Were you in the middle of the market?
ANCELL: If zero is down at the bottom, 50 percent is in the middle and 100 percent is the top, we were around 40 to 70, 40 to 65, middle and upper-middle.
INTERVIEWER: You started to have success with this thing in 1939, 1940. Then World War II was coming on. Before that, did anybody else have the common sense to look at what you were doing and say: “That’s a good idea. Let’s try it ourselves.”? Did anybody try to knock you off?
ANCELL: Not a soul. Before the war started, we had bought a dining room plant in South Ashford, Massachusetts that had been in existence since 1829 as the Whitney Manufacturing Company. That was the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle. We found the same kind of people in South Ashford as we found at Beecher Falls. They learned our quality and our techniques and everything else from what we showed them at Beecher Falls.
In 1933, we started Daystrom Corporation, which is now a big, big operation – LADD Furniture. We started Daystrom Corporation in one room in Jamestown, New York. We had one press. We made a little coaster for F.W. Woolworth, which we sold for 3 cents, and it retailed for 5 cents. I have a sample in my drawer.
INTERVIEWER: You made coasters? It wasn’t furniture?
ANCELL: It was a metal store. It was a metal stamping business. We had one press.
INTERVIEWER: How did you get into that? You had committed yourself to furniture and home furnishings.
ANCELL: In 1933 we were still drop-shipment jobbers.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see. But you had bought that plant at that time?
ANCELL: No, a guy wandered into our little 1,100 foot showroom at 1107 Broadway. He introduced himself and his name was Lloyd Dahmen. That’s where the name Daystrom came from. He was a lawyer like I was. He gave up the law business; he wanted to become a manufacturer.
He had this little one-room plant up in Jamestown. He said, “Would you be interested in representing us?” We talked and went to dinner one night and he sounded like a very, very bright, smart guy. He was a Swedish man and very, very bright. He turned out to be one of the brightest men I’ve ever met in my life. And a fantastic engineer. He made the machinery, developed the machinery without any background.
He had great imagination and great technical ability. We said, “Sure, we’d love to go with you.” So we joined up with Lloyd Dahmen. We put some money in the factory and we began to make this ashtray.
INTERVIEWER: Actually, the New England thing wasn’t your first factory. That was Ted and yours. But for the first one, you were partners with this guy.
ANCELL: First we were partners with Lloyd Dahmen. I’ve got to go back a little bit to 1932 when we started.
We started with a factory called Thuma Manufacturing Company in Bridgewater, Virginia. They were making the 37-and-1/2-cent end table I told you about.
This was a very, very important big factory. The factory was 1,500 square feet and had a dirt floor. The factory had four pieces of equipment. We started there making this end table and then we developed another factory, equally as big. It was 1,600 square feet in Thomasville, North Carolina, opposite of where Tom Finch’s father, Austin Finch, had his great big factory. This was 1,600 square feet with four or five pieces of equipment and we invested some money in that factory. Our manager’s name was Ed Perryman. He had no teeth but he chewed tobacco so we had spit places.
Then the war came. In 1941, we stopped making furniture. We had some salespeople then. We had eight or 10 salespeople out in the field. They went into the Army. A lot of our manufacturing people were in the Army and then I had to change my whole life. I had to practically live two or three days a week in Washington, D.C. in order to try to get some war work with priority so that we could keep our factories open and manufacture something.
Most of the things Washington was buying were steel and metal. There was not very much wood. We found some wood things that we could make. We made gun stocks. We made kitchen tables, quartermaster tables. As the war developed, we had a couple of horrible jobs. We made coffins to transport the dead soldiers back from Europe to the United States. Another job we got were the wood crosses to go over the graves. Those were very, very depressing days. Then we had a very interesting contract for the merchant ships that were going across to serve and bring supplies. They were being sunk by the subs left and right. What did you call them?
INTERVIEWER: Liberty Ships.
ANCELL: Liberty Ships. We got one of the contracts to make life rafts for the Liberty Ships. The life rafts were the things that were hung on the ship at an angle so that if the boat was torpedoed, all they had to do was have the guys jump in on the damn thing, put an axe to the cord – the ropes that held it up there – and it would slide down in the ocean. There were provisions under the seats so that they could live on the ocean for several weeks with the hard-tack provisions. The life raft was about 18 by 18 feet. It was a very complicated kind of a thing. We built our first sample in the factory in Beecher Falls. When we got finished with the sample, we couldn’t get it out of the factory and we had to bust the walls down of part of the factory to get it out to send it down to Washington.
INTERVIEWER: It was like the old story of a guy building a boat in the basement. You did it.
ANCELL: Then we had another job. We made all of the vat lining for the Basic Magnesium Company in Nevada. Basic magnesium was a very important material for various war things and the vat lining was for where they boiled and refined the magnesium. The vat lining had to be impregnated with plastic material. We invented a way to impregnate a log. It was fascinating. We built a big cement pit. (These are the things we had to go through in order to stay alive and stay breathing.) We had to build a cement pit which was about 4 feet deep. We had to build a stand where we’d put a 16-foot log. We would put a cap on one end of the log with a whole lot of tubes going into that cap through which we’d force the resin into the log.
INTERVIEWER: With what? What kind of pressure?
ANCELL: High pressure. We’d feed the pressure and the resin, which was colored, through these pipes into the log under pressure.
INTERVIEWER: Did you steam this log first so it was pliable?
INTERVIEWER: A dry log?
ANCELL: No, it was a green, green log. It had to be green. A newly-cut log.
This is interesting. What happened was, by the process of osmosis, the feeding and the pressure of the resin into the log would evacuate the sap and moisture out the other end. The resin would take the place of the sap and the moisture. It was colored so when we split the log and made the boards, we could see by the color how deeply it had penetrated the board. It had to penetrate a certain distance in order for the board to be impervious to the magnesium that was being boiled in that vat. And we did it.
INTERVIEWER: Were these just square pieces? Were they logs?
ANCELL: They were whole logs.
INTERVIEWER: Then you cut them or made them circular and bent them?
ANCELL: No, not at all. We then took the log after it was impregnated and we cut it up into 2-inch wide boards. Those would go into the factory and we’d begin to shape them and make them the form that would be needed for the basic magnesium vat liner.
When we started to bring all the stuff into the factory, one morning everybody in the factory came down with huge rashes all over their bodies. We felt right away that we had run into the Bubonic Plague. It was a very, very serious matter because we thought it was going to spread to the whole town. It would spread to Vermont.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t suspect that it was impregnation?
ANCELL: We didn’t know. We didn’t know what it was. We had scientists up there; we had everybody, doctors and everything. Finally, after about three weeks of study, they came to the conclusion that what was happening was that most people were allergic to the plastic. When they touched it, they would develop this rash. The rash would go from one person to another. So what looked like Bubonic Plague could be cured by buying rubber gloves and rubber boots for everybody so that they would not come in physical contact with this God damn material.
Then the rash disappeared. We had to develop a salve to rub on and it cured the rash. We were able to finish the contract without having a Bubonic Plague.
INTERVIEWER: That’s what you did during the war. You made the liners, the life rafts.
ANCELL: Coffins and crosses.
INTERVIEWER: And quartermaster tables.
ANCELL: We also made most of the furniture, the desks and chairs, for the Navy in their training stations.
INTERVIEWER: The V-6 and the V-7 programs.
ANCELL: We made desks and chairs in our factories for that program. We also made hospital furniture; this was a big series of contracts. We shipped some of it overseas. We shipped a lot of it to hospitals here where they brought the wounded back.
I want to tell you something about the war period. We were a conscientious group of people in my company. We really were and we are. I used to live in Washington three days a week and I would come home mentally vomiting because our kids, our brothers and fathers and everybody were over there getting shot and killed, bloodied, legs and arms off – all the horrible things that were happening in the war. I want to tell you, those were terribly, terribly traumatic days for me. They were terribly traumatic. I’ll never, never, never forget them.
INTERVIEWER: I can imagine. I was one of those guys getting shot at.
The war’s over. V-Day comes.
ANCELL: When the war was over, by 1941 when we gave up civilian goods, Daystrom was an $11-million dinette producer. It was the best. We went from this little coaster, a little smoking stand for 37 cents. Then we developed a tubular machine; Lloyd Dahmen developed a tubular machine. We made an “S” type chair. Do you know an “S” chair? Tubular thing?
INTERVIEWER: Oh yeah.
ANCELL: We sold that for $1.60. That led us to make a dinette table. We packaged four chairs and the dinette set for $14.
Lloyd Dahmen came into my office one day and he had a little square of melamine. He was dropping his knife upon the melamine and saying, “This goddamned material is terrific.” He hit this little square of thin melamine. He had such imagination and such creativity. We talked about it. Union Carbide was developing melamine. Melamine is a plastic surface. Do you know what it is?
INTERVIEWER: I know what it is.
ANCELL: We went to Union Carbide, who’s just down the street here now, and they said they would build a factory for us if we would use their chemicals to make melamine. We thought so highly of melamine that we felt it would replace the porcelain tops that tables had where the big, black chips were. Stoves had porcelain tops and all the kitchen stuff had porcelain tops, which would chip and flake.
We felt that this melamine would take the place. So Union Carbide built it for us. They spent $290,000, which in those days was fantastic.
INTERVIEWER: Now what year was this?
ANCELL: This was back in 1934, ’35.
We used their material. They built us a plant.
INTERVIEWER: Where were you at this time?
ANCELL: We had moved to Olean (New York). We bought a 60,000-foot factory in Olean because we grew out of the one room early in the game.
They built us a plant to make melamine and we made the melamine sheets. We laid them up with interior sheets and a backing sheet. We pressed them all together. We got a 3/4 inch top with a melamine surface. Do you remember the name Lowey?
INTERVIEWER: I remember.
ANCELL: Raymond Lowey. He designed the paper. There was paper under the melamine, which was a very, very contemporary design so that it was a very decorative top.
We came out with a price that for a tabletop was a dollar more than porcelain. A lot of people said: “Ah, stuff it. We want porcelain.” We had to fight that battle. We won in the end. Porcelain began to disappear and we became famous for putting melamine tops on dinette tables.
When the war came along, we had an $11-million dinette business. That was a big business then.
Then when the war was over, we converted Daystrom to manufacture ammunition boxes in the wings of airplanes, where they feed out the ammunition. That was made out of melamine. We had the melamine. We were the only ones making it. We were self-sufficient with it so we got the contract for all of the ammunition boxes in all of the war planes. It sat in the wing.
INTERVIEWER: I know. I was a pilot during the war.
ANCELL: You were? So you know when you shot, stuff came out of these. Then we made nacels. You know what a nacel is? It housed the motor.
ANCELL: We were fully converted to the Navy in making nacels and ammunition boxes.
INTERVIEWER: This was all for the Navy?
ANCELL: Then we won.
Incidentally at Beecher Falls, we won three Navy E’s and at Daystrom we won a triple Navy E every year for the five years we were in business.
ANCELL: We had all the brass in the Navy. We took one hell of a job, a tremendous job. They gave it to us at Beecher Falls because that was our mother plant. We did a very, very good job.
INTERVIEWER: You felt you contributed to the war effort.
ANCELL: For us it was a big way.
INTERVIEWER: Well, sure. You were doing the best you could.
ANCELL: Although our people were saddened to make coffins and crosses, they were enlivened by the feeling that they were doing something for the war.
When the war ended, we had a problem at Daystrom. If you remember, there was an excess profits tax during the war; 90 percent of your profits were taxable. We had no opportunity to accumulate any monies to reconvert our factories to civilian goods. It would have taken us about $1 million to $2 million to convert Daystrom to civilian goods, back to dinettes again. We didn’t have the money to do that so we sold our Daystrom factory to American Type Founders. We all stayed on. We took care of all the sales and Lloyd Dahmen stayed on to run it. They just took it on as a subsidiary and we ran it. They paid $1.3 million for it; in the first year of operation, they made a profit of $1.4 million. There was such a pent-up demand for civilian goods in 1945.
INTERVIEWER: What was American Type Founders making in that plant?
ANCELL: They made printing presses. They were in Elizabeth, New Jersey. We stayed on as the marketing arm of that business until 1949 because we were using the commissions we made in the marketing arm for Daystrom. We used those commissions to develop our Ethan Allen business.
INTERVIEWER: As “the marketing arm of the factory” were you selling printing presses or what?
INTERVIEWER: Of Daystrom itself.
ANCELL: Not American Type Founders.
INTERVIEWER: They took the plant but you still had the Daystrom know-how. What happened?
ANCELL: It was Daystrom. It was known as Daystrom.
INTERVIEWER: I’m missing something here. You sold out to American Type Founders, who made printing presses?
ANCELL: No, no, no. They made printing presses in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
INTERVIEWER: They just bought Daystrom as a company that made dinettes so they’re making dinette sets.
ANCELL: Same as we stopped in 1941.
INTERVIEWER: A marketing arm until 1949.
ANCELL: We used the commissions we were making, which were very large, and brought that back into the development of our Ethan Allen business by buying other factories to make early American tables. Then we went into the upholstery business. Our whole business has been like a jigsaw puzzle: you had a picture on the top of the box, a beautiful picture. Inside you have a thousand little hunks of stuff and you’ve got to put those little hunks of stuff together to make the picture that appears on the top of the box. That’s what our business was like.
We were then able to devote our time to acquiring factories and rehabilitating our factories; to getting production up and getting more designs of the kind we wanted; and developing our open-stock collection of furniture. We bought wood factories, other bedroom factories, other dining room factories and occasional furniture factories.
Then we went into the living room business. We bought our first factory in living rooms in Dudley, Massachusetts. Dudley, Massachusetts, in those days, made automobile bodies. That was their former business. They made automobile bodies that they shipped to Detroit and put on chassis. They were upholstered.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see; they were automobile upholsterers.
ANCELL: Right. We converted that factory into regular upholstered goods.
INTERVIEWER: When was that?
INTERVIEWER: You were buying these factories. How many factories did you have in 1948? You had two at the end of the war and now where are you?
ANCELL: Each year we desired to buy at least one factory. A couple of years we bought two or three. We were in a hurry to acquire production.
INTERVIEWER: That was 40 years ago. Have you got 40 factories?
ANCELL: No. I’m talking about the few years after ’45. We had to put together more of the pieces.
INTERVIEWER: You’re putting your crossword puzzle together.
ANCELL: That’s exactly what our business has been. It’s the best symbolic way I can describe our business. We had labels on all the pieces; we knew what they were. Just like today, we know that we’re going to be building houses before long.
INTERVIEWER: You are?
ANCELL: We are.
INTERVIEWER: That’s fantastic. There were some things like television sets that you contracted for in your crossword puzzle.
ANCELL: Oh yeah, sure.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t make everything. You didn’t make the rugs and all.
ANCELL: No. We only made the furniture.
INTERVIEWER: Only the furniture.
ANCELL: During the late ’40s and early ’50s, we had a group of people who would find two or three lamp companies. We would design the lamps that went with our furniture and we’d contract those lamps to a couple of lamp companies who would make these lamps for us. We knew all along that when our volume got big enough, we might buy those lamp companies and begin manufacturing lamps. We know today we’re going to be manufacturing rugs, which we don’t make now. We make oriental rugs but we don’t make wall-to-wall carpeting. We know that within the next year or so, we’re going to buy a mill to make wall-to-wall carpeting. The key words in our business are “control” and “vertical.”
INTERVIEWER: “Control” and what?
ANCELL: “Vertical.” In other words, we had to control our business from raw materials right into the consumer’s home, which we’re doing now.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about the metamorphosis of Ethan Allen stores?
ANCELL: In the early years, 85 percent of our distribution was through department stores with Ethan Allen having a gallery way back. I’m talking about 25, 35 years ago; this was after ’45. We began having galleries of Ethan Allen in department stores and also having some galleries in general furniture stores. As we developed and our line broadened, we bought more factories and we went into the living room business, the table business, the occasional furniture business and broadened the whole line. We needed more space; what was 3,000 feet went to 4,000 to 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
When we went into handling other accessory things, such as pictures, mirrors, clocks and all the other things, we found that department stores, particularly, could not handle our line because they wouldn’t give us the space we needed and their salespeople didn’t know how to sell lamps, pictures, mirrors and things like that. The salespeople knew how to sell furniture but they didn’t know how to sell home decoration. They didn’t spend the time with consumers; they didn’t know how to do it. It became obvious to us that we would have to set up a different type of distribution, a different type of display, a different type of salesperson, a different type of advertising and a different type of almost everything in order to reach the consumers with a decorating service, which is what we merchandised and marketed.
We then developed a prototype Ethan Allen store. It was a Georgian design that would reflect what was inside of the store so that we could establish a national identity for Ethan Allen by having the same kind of a Georgian building to house Ethan Allen all over the country. When they saw the building, people would know that was an Ethan Allen building.
For a period in the late ’40s, we had 2,200 dealers. They were galleries, which is what some of the people are trying to do now. We had a transition from 2,200 down to no more than 200 to 400. We knew that in order to do that transition, we would have to have real Ethan Allen stores with plenty of space to show the products that we were going into. We would need the proper salespeople, the proper display, the proper advertising, the proper education, the proper everything. We would have to see to it that all of these marketing systems that Ethan Allen was devoted to would be expressed at the consumer level, which we could not get done through department stores or a gallery in a furniture store.
INTERVIEWER: When did you set up your prototype?
ANCELL: We set up the first prototype store in 1961. We gave some of our dealers an opportunity to open prototype stores in their areas. Some said yes, did that and went out of the general furniture business. The department stores couldn’t do it and didn’t do it, so we had to begin to slowly withdraw from department stores. Not necessarily slowly – we withdrew as quickly as we could establish prototype Ethan Allen stores. We had a transition in our business from galleries in furniture stores and in department stores into the Ethan Allen prototype buildings so that we could reach consumers with everything that we had in our marketing concept.
INTERVIEWER: You had some good successful Ethan Allen dealers that transferred with you into the program.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about that period. How did you do it? How did you accomplish that job?
ANCELL: I don’t want to get too detailed here because I’m not publishing an analysis of how to do this job. I don’t even want it in anybody’s hands until the time comes.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about history.
ANCELL: But there’s a whole lot of implementation involved here, which is not something that I’m interested in publishing.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your school.
ANCELL: We didn’t have a school in 1961, but we architected a building and then we began to establish those buildings and build those buildings in various locations where we had dealers who wanted to get out of the general furniture business and operate an Ethan Allen gallery. We began to build. We had builders who bought the property and built the building according to our architectural development. Then we would back off and get out of certain department stores and general furniture stores. We kept opening Ethan Allen prototype stores, which we’ve done for 20 years thereafter. We had one; then we had six; then we had eight; then we had 12; then we had 20 and so on. We were dropping the old-type gallery and going into the new. It took years. We don’t have to give up anymore now. In the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve been establishing only new Ethan Allen galleries in areas where we do not have galleries now.
We then had to develop all of these programs for our dealers to give them the tools with which they could help the consumer have a pretty home. That meant beautiful product, collated product, integrated product, beautiful display so that they could see how it would look in their homes. We needed very educated interior designers helping people, going into their homes and selling. We had to (and we still have to) teach and train the interior designers about how to say “hello” to a customer, how to tell a customer what we’re all about and what we’re here for, how to go into her home and help decorate her home. We had to develop a whole advertising program. We had to develop a total communication program of reaching the consumers to tell them what we do and why we do it. We had to teach and train the delivery people in our stores how to deliver with white gloves and red-carpet treatment. We had to provide for our dealers every single step of the way so that they could properly and professionally serve the consumer. The implementation of all of those things was the most critical thing we were doing – implementing our marketing system. That took loads of time, loads of money for developing people. We had to develop an organization that would develop all these tools that we supplied our dealers with. Having built the organization, there’s nobody that has an organization like we have. We have 500 people here, all devoted to planning for consumers. That’s about it.
INTERVIEWER: Of course, you have regular school as a result of that.
ANCELL: We started the Ethan Allen College about 25 years ago and we brought groups of our people here to headquarters. We train them and educate them with curriculum as though they were in school. We now have developed it to a very important point, but it’s still not anywhere near where we’d like it. We have 14 classrooms and when we bring interior designers here, there’s a regular curriculum just like in college. They cost us; they go from one cost, to another cost, to another cost.
INTERVIEWER: Does it help – the fact that they may have had some training someplace else in interior design?
ANCELL: We train and educate our foremen at the factories. We train and educate the people who work on machines. We train and educate the store owners. We train and educate their office help on bookkeeping and recordkeeping, accounting and finance. There’s no element of our business in which we do not have a training course, video tapes and other material. We need to have them constantly educated even after they leave here.
ANCELL: Then we had to have a field organization, not composed of salesmen because we have nothing to sell our dealers. They would just buy everything that we built into the line. We had a field organization of advertising people who would develop the advertising programs and projections for our dealers – what media to use, when to use them, and how to use our advertising material – the radio programs and television programs.
We have another group of people out in the field who are merchandising people, who see to it that the stores are professionally merchandised and arranged and decorated. Then we have another group who are the training group. They run training sessions for all of our dealers out in the field with the material that we develop – the video tapes and the seminar materials and so on. We don’t have salesmen out in the field but we have three different groups of people who help our dealers run their businesses on a professional basis.
INTERVIEWER: Can you sum up? Give me some sort of summary of the accomplishments. I know the program is not finished and never will be, as far as you’re concerned. You’re going to be there; you’ve got a long time to go before it ever fulfills your ultimate dream. Looking back now, what do you feel you’ve accomplished?
ANCELL: I could tell you that very easily. It’s taken us 58 years to put a foundation under our business. If you want to build a 100-story building, you’ve got to dig down into the rock 14 stories in order to put a foundation so the wind won’t blow over your building. We’ve been spending the very best part of 50 years putting a foundation under our business – a foundation of production facilities, a live program, a beautifully developed communication system of public relations and advertising. We’ve been building the most important part of it all – an organization of people who can accomplish these things, motivate and enthuse those people, teaching them what the objectives of the business are. Our organization of manufacturing and marketing people is the most critical asset that we have.
We have continually augmented our overall blueprint. It takes in all the products and all the necessary programs to furnish a home from soup to nuts, but it also takes in the possibility of moving into the real estate business, the housing business and the landscape business. The ultimate package is not just a living room, a bedroom, a dining room and a kitchen. The ultimate package is a way of life. That takes in the house, the interior, the real estate, the landscaping, the swimming pools, the picket fence, the rose bushes and everything else. That’s the ultimate package. Maybe someday, if you want to stretch your imagination, it might even take the automobile and the garage. Well, I know people laugh. When those guys used to sit down at the piano, but then 30 or 40 or 50 years from now when it comes to pass, they’ll laugh out of the other side of their mouth.
ANCELL: Another thing that we’ve accomplished over these 55 years or 58 years is the fact that we have overcome the natural resistance of people to accepting a new marketing system that obliterates and makes obsolete previous marketing systems. Now we’re seeing that the conventional retail systems of the last hundred years are going out of business at a great rate because they no longer serve the consumer the way the sophisticated consumer wants to be served.
That’s the main difficulty with the furniture industry. The furniture industry has become a product industry with relationships only between manufacturers and retailers without any serious consideration or knowledge about what it takes to serve a consumer. The consumer is the forgotten person in the furniture industry’s lexicon. It’s also the forgotten person in the carpet industry; it’s a forgotten person in the lamp industry – in all of these industries. All of these home furnishings – draperies, bedspreads, furniture, carpeting, lamps – they’re all out only to sell their own product. That is not what the consumer needs. That’s what makes it so hard for a consumer to furnish a home; they’ve got to go out and put a lamp together with a table, a rug, a drapery, a bedspread and wallpaper. No longer will a consumer spend the time, effort and money in order to make a serious mistake.
INTERVIEWER: Some people have tried to imitate you in a sense. You started the first gallery and now there are gallery programs in the industry. I know they pale in comparison to yours.
ANCELL: They not only pale. All they are and all they should be recognized for is as a good move because it makes at least the display of a manufacturer’s products better and a little more professional. But that is all it does. It makes the display a little bit better but there is no real coordination. They’re now trying to mix a few accessories in it. Well, hell, that’s just a little picayune move. It doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t give the consumer what the consumer wants. The consumer can’t come into these galleries and fix up a home. There’s nobody there to help her because they’re not qualified to help her, though maybe a few stores have a few decorators in them who really do it. They don’t even have the tools with which to help a consumer decorate their home.
Consumers are not going to use the typical decorators because the typical decorators are great for people with great, great wealth who want a very, very unusual home that will cost maybe a half a million dollars by the time a good interior decorator gets through with it. But the general pubic can’t afford that; they have no money to pay for that luxury. Therefore, they have no place to go to get any help. Hopefully, they find out that they can go to the Ethan Allen gallery and get that help.
INTERVIEWER: Good. I think that lines it up. Thank you very much. You’ve been a founder of a number of institutions and that’s on the record. What I want to know from you is: what do you consider your most important honors or contributions to general humanity?
ANCELL: I can answer that very easily. There are only three things that have any real meaning to me in my own lifetime. One is the work that I’ve done all my life with 23 or 24 different charitable institutions, universities and hospitals. That is very, very meaningful and takes up all of my money and a great deal of my time.
INTERVIEWER: You said at the beginning of the interview that your father and mother had given you the example of philanthropy. Go back to that and tell me how did you get that philosophy? It didn’t come out of the air.
ANCELL: I watched my father and mother establish the first community center building in Staten Island – build it, develop it, hire the people for it, operate it, run it.
INTERVIEWER: Community center?
ANCELL: A community center for all kinds of people – young people, basketball teams, sports.
INTERVIEWER: Where in Staten Island?
ANCELL: Victory Boulevard in St. George. They were involved deeply in the development of our orthodox temple and all of the religious services that went with our orthodox temple. They were deeply involved in establishing clinics and hospitals in Staten Island. They were very, very active in many of the social institutions of Staten Island. I lived with them, watched them, participated as a child in some of the activities and watched what they did.
The second thing, outside of the charities, that I think is a worthwhile accomplishment, (and this is real inside information about me) is the fact that we’ve helped literally millions and millions of people have very pretty home environments in which they can live quality lives. That’s extremely important to me, as an accomplishment of, not just mine, but the whole business.
Then the other accomplishment is: in the ’30s we found many, many small communities that were in very bad shape starting in New England and then going down south into other parts of the country. We bought factories in those communities and we rehabilitated the communities. The houses got painted. The people were able to buy good clothes and good food. They sent their kids to college. We helped build a lot of wonderful communities like Beecher Falls, Olean, Randolph, South Ashford, Booneville and Jamestown. There are 30 some communities that we have helped rehabilitate and put the people in great shape; they’re prosperous and the colleges are good; the high schools are good; the grade schools are good; the hospitals are good; the movie houses are good. We’ve had a wonderful experience in rehabilitating, building and growing many, many communities around the country. That’s about it. The rest of it you can have.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a hell of an accomplishment.
Will you tell me a little bit more? We have a very good history of Ethan Allen and your long-range plan for Ethan Allen for the next 50 years, but you didn’t tell us much about the person behind that drive: Nat Ancell. We want to know more about your philosophy.
ANCELL: There are two things that stand out in my mind that really substantially shaped what I’ve done over the last 55 or 58 years. One is that when I entered college, for some reason or another, I saw a picture in my mind of a man 75, 80, 85 years old who was coming to the end of his life. The picture I saw was this elderly man lying in bed upstairs in his home. The whole room was totally white; the walls were white; the ceiling was white; the bed sheets were white; his hair was white. He was lying there, quite peacefully and he was taking the final, final inventory of his life. I saw that picture in my mind very, very vividly and I began to expand on it. I thought about how there are all kinds of inventories that a person can create in their lifetime. At one extreme would be to have $10 or $15 billion in safe deposits and companies all over the world, have yachts and homes and all the material well-being. The other end of the inventory would be that downstairs in his home, he had a wife of 57 years and four or five great children, 14 or 15 wonderful grandchildren and not much else of a material nature. Now there are inventories of all kinds in between those two extremes.
The thing that impressed me at that early age – I was about 18 and a half years old – was that my life lay ahead of me; and I had to decide what kind of an inventory I wanted in my life. I thought that if I waited until I was 75 or 80 to start creating that inventory, I wouldn’t be able to do it because it would be too late. I then began to think through college and law school and all my life after that, about what kind of an inventory I would like to die having. That shaped all of my activity, all of my work, my family, and all of my social and contributory work. That began to shape all those things. Now, when I’m really 80, I can actually see myself lying in this bed and feel reasonably comfortable that I have created the kind of inventory that I wanted to have when I was 18.
INTERVIEWER: That’s terrific.
ANCELL: The other thing that helped shape our business course was that when I did enter college in 1925, the first course I took was Contemporary Civilization. I remember the course very well because the professor’s name was Dr. Goebbels and he had a very bad lisp. My name began with “A” so I sat right in front of him and he spit on me for six months. I remember the course very well.
The textbook was a big, thick, soft-cover, blue book. The opening line in that book, the very first sentence was “Home is the core of civilization.” That little line burned itself into my mind so much that when I did leave the law business and went into the furniture business, I began to think, “What could we do in the next 50 years to make the home important?” In as much as it was the “core of civilization”, it was significant to people and had such an impact on the quality of their lives and relationships among husbands and wives, children, family and relatives.
That little sentence – “Home is the core of civilization” – actually shaped the course of our business and has become more and more significant right up till today. The combination of thinking at the beginning of your life about the concept of an inventory at the end of your life plus the fact that this opening sentence made the home so significant shaped the course of our business. Our business has made, and continues to make, home the most important part of what we do. It’s the total objective of our company. Those two things, philosophically, were the critical things in my life.
INTERVIEWER: You were 18 and a half years old. Something triggered the picture.
ANCELL: I had studied before that to be a rabbi and I was very, very religiously oriented. I began to think of the kind of life that people live – the curse of money and the curse of concentrating on the material things. I guess that led me to: “what did I want to do in my life? What kind of a life do I want to lead?”
INTERVIEWER: Today, as you look back, have you accomplished most of it? Or do you think you’ve got a longer way to go?
ANCELL: Oh, well. I don’t know if I could say this. I don’t think I’ve ever said it publicly, but all my life I have felt totally inadequate. When you say that to some people now, they say: “You must be crazy. You’re not inadequate. You’ve done a great many things in your life. They were all very constructive or many of them were. You should feel very adequate.” But unfortunately, I don’t. I’m kind of glad that I’ve felt inadequate all my life because it’s been a driving motor for me. It’s driven my motor, this feeling inadequate.
I was a pretty good athlete when I was a youngster; I pitched a lot. I played first singles on Columbia’s tennis team. I played basketball for Columbia but I never felt that I did a good enough job. And I don’t feel that I did a good enough job with Ethan Allen over the last 50 years. It could have been a lot better. I tell you the truth when I say that the feeling of inadequacy has both positive qualities about it and negative qualities. You don’t feel very happy when you feel inadequate, but on the other hand, it makes you strive and strive to try to become adequate. I have no beef at all about the fact that I’ve felt inadequate all my life. But I