Many area families are fortunate to own a set of matching card table and chairs manufactured by the Fort Wayne firm of Louis Rastetter and Sons. The furniture was made of fine hardwood in a variety of styles. All could be folded, and it was so well made that even 70 and 80 years later, many pieces are still in fine condition and in regular use. Indeed, a Rastetter set remains a highly collectable local antique and can still be found at many local garage and estate sales.
The firm began in 1882 in a small machine shop at the corner to Jefferson and Calhoun streets. Its founder, Louis C. Rastetter, a native of Baden, Germany, had arrived in New York in 1854, and after several years in that state, finally reached Fort Wayne and found work in the Wabash Railroad Shops. He manufactured clocks, including one for the 1860 courthouse, and by 1882 began developing a line of bent wood bows of various sizes for use as the framework for buggy tops.
The firm continued to grow. In 1887, Rastetter moved his business to Broadway, near the junction of the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he began making fuse and connection boxes for the Jenney Electric Light Company, the forerunner of General Electric. In 1890, he won a contract with the A. G. Spalding Company for making bent wood frames for tennis rackets. Spalding was so impressed that it bought all of Rastetter's tennis racket equipment and moved it to its own plant in Massachusetts.
The Rastetter Company remained innovative. It continued to make buggy tops but added to it the manufacture of bicycle rims to keep up with the new craze in cycling in the 1890s. The factory moved again in 1895 to Wall Street at the corner of Nelson, one block west of Garden Street. When Louis Rastetter died in 1898, he was succeeded by his son, William, who shifted the business focus from bicycle rims to wooden steering wheel rims for newly-manufactured automobiles. As these began to evolve away from horseless carriages with buggy tops to more substantial, closed-body vehicles, the company's business declined, and William began to look for something else for his company to manufacture. He then arrived at the decision that would transform the firm and make it well-known across America: the manufacture of folding furniture.
Folding furniture was a natural fit for a company with a long experience in making foldable buggy tops. The chairs were strong, durable, and were soon designed to accompany matching folding tables. By the 1930s, the company made the largest assortment of such card tables and chairs of any in the United States. A radio script on the history of local businesses from WGL in 1937 praised Rastetter's work and the diversity of its craftsmanship. "Such beautiful period types as Duncan Phyfe, Chippendale, New Classic, Sheraton, and Moderne are now included as standard in their line. Their folding tables have been immensely improved - tables without braces showing on the legs - that are far more rigid than the old type." Rastetter also won large contracts with cruise ship companies and manufactured folding chairs for ocean liners. Churches, businesses, and clubs all over the country also purchased many of the chairs. The standard label read the "Solid Kumfort Folding Chair." The company remained in business until the early 1960s.
By looking at the original label on a Rastetter chair or table, it is possible to tell the date of its manufacture. The company offered many different styles, coverings, and varnishes over its long history. Because the furniture was so widely distributed and associated with quality, each piece served as a kind of ambassador for Fort Wayne and the people who made it. Or as the radio script from 1937 stated, "Naturally, this reflects in no small way the increasing evidence of Fort Wayne as a diversified manufacturing center."
So if you have a Rastetter table and chair set, especially in pristine original condition, treasure it. Such sets are highly sought after by collectors. The several sets my wife and I own are still in regular use on gaming nights with our children or when we have extra company at our dining table. How do you use yours?