McGARVEY, OWEN, furniture manufacturer and dealer; b. c. 1821 in Keady (Northern Ireland), son of Francis McGarvey and Bridget Murray; m. 8 May 1848 Margaret Cooper of Montreal, and they had daughters and one son; d. 7 July 1897 in Montreal.
Owen McGarvey immigrated to Montreal when about 17 years of age. Already a painter by trade, he opened a paint, oil, and glass store in 1843 and there he sold common kitchen chairs ready for painting. In this he followed the practice of other paint dealers of the day, but for him the furniture business gradually assumed priority. His listing in city directories changed from painter to furniture manufacturer, and in 1856 he made one of several moves designed to provide ever larger show-rooms and manufacturing facilities. His final move, in the 1880s, was to the corner of Notre-Dame and McGill streets, where his premises, for many years topped by a mammoth rocking-chair, eventually rose six storeys high and boasted show-windows fitted, he claimed, with “the largest plates of glass in the world.”
As did other Montreal cabinet-makers, McGarvey also sold furniture not of his own making. In his earlier days most of the chairs he sold were roughly put together for him in L’Assomption, and finished at his Montreal factory. By the 1860s he was selling as many as 15,000 of these chairs annually. Through the years he became an importer as well as a manufacturer “of every style of plain and fancy furniture.” At provincial and dominion exhibitions, where he was a consistent prizewinner (eight firsts and seven seconds at the Dominion Exhibition of 1882, for example), he often showed assortments of furniture drawn from many sources. To the great overseas exhibitions, however – at Paris in 1855 and 1867, at Antwerp in 1885, and at London in 1886 – he sent only furniture from his own factory, winning diplomas and medals, as well as gaining orders.
Whether imported, as were the goods from Philadelphia which he advertised in 1878, purchased from other Canadian manufacturers, or the products of his own workshop, McGarvey’s stock represented the “new, stylish and useful in modern furniture.” He never abandoned the kitchen chairs (he had 50,000 on hand in 1878), or the wooden rocking-chairs that were his trademark (and which won him honourable mention at Paris in 1855), but he put increasing emphasis on richly carved furniture with fashionable cabriole legs, offering it in rosewood, mahogany, or black walnut. He guided customers through historical revival styles: Gothic, Elizabethan, and so-called Queen Anne. When the effect of Charles Lock Eastlake’s Hints on household taste in furniture, upholstery, and other details (first published in London, England, in 1868) began to be felt in the industry, McGarvey was quick to advertise “Eastlake style” goods. Most of what became known as “Eastlake” was only tenuously related to the massive furniture held together, in medieval manner, by pegged joints that Eastlake himself advocated, but the name was a fashionable catchword. It was the same with “art furniture,” of which McGarvey announced plentiful supplies, and which in Montreal usually meant nothing more than furniture ebonized and gilded.
To meet the Victorian desire for novelty, McGarvey dealt in furniture made of steers’ horns. “Fancy chairs” of this construction were part of his display at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886. He held a patent for a combined sofa and bric-à-brac shelf. For the nursery he had clockwork cradles that would rock babies for two hours and high chairs that converted into hobby-horses. When rattan furniture became popular in the last quarter of the century, he offered it painted not only in the usual colours of white or green, but also in more exotic gold, silver, or bronze. He stocked bentwood parlour sets, enamelled bedroom furniture, and office equipment.
McGarvey’s sales techniques were advanced for his day. Except when moving his place of business, he avoided the common practice of auction sales, and warned against buying at auctions where furniture made specifically for such sales was frequently unloaded on a public which had no recourse if the goods later proved unsatisfactory. He preferred fitting up room displays such as a parlour, library, or bedroom, where customers could see well-made, costly furniture in a home-like setting. Large sales, small profits, and satisfied customers were goals he pursued for more than half a century.
In community as well as business affairs McGarvey played an active part. A member of St Patrick’s Church, he was always concerned with the welfare of the Irish Catholics of the city. He was a vice-president of St Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society and a director of the Montreal St Patrick’s Orphan Asylum and the Montreal St Bridget’s Refuge. He was, as well, a life governor of the Montreal General Hospital, vice-president of the Notre-Dame Hospital, vice-president of the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of the City of Montreal, and a supporter of the Art Association of Montreal. When the Montreal Board of Trade erected its first building in 1892, McGarvey, who had been a member of the board for a number of years, was a holder of mortgage bonds.
On 6 June 1876 McGarvey had taken his son, John, into partnership. Undoubtedly he had hoped his son would continue the firm of Owen McGarvey and Son, but John predeceased him on 18 June 1888. When Owen McGarvey died, his business died with him. At his death he was Montreal’s longest established furniture manufacturer. From small beginnings he had gained, according to the Gazette, “a foremost place amongst the merchant princes and manufacturers” of the city. His “uninterrupted prosperity” was attributed to strict integrity, a shrewd knowledge of the trade, and an enterprising spirit.
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Montréal, 10 juill. 1897. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 8 mai 1848. BE, Montréal, déclarations de sociétés, 6: 533. U.C., Board of Arts and Manufactures, Journal (Toronto), 7 (1867): 202. Argus (Montreal), 17 Sept., 9 Dec. 1857. Eastern Townships Gazette and District of Bedford Advertiser (Granby, Que.), 27 Jan., 7 April 1865. Gazette (Montreal), 8 May, 6 Dec. 1878; 9 May 1879; 1 May, 20 Sept., 2 Oct. 1880; 5 May 1881; 20 Sept. 1882; 8 Oct. 1885; 6 Nov., 4 Dec. 1886; 19 Jan., 22 Sept. 1888; 31 Dec. 1890; 8, 12 July 1897. La Minerve, 13 mars 1878. Montreal Daily Star, 19 May 1892. Montreal Daily Witness, 22 Dec. 1888. Montreal Herald, 17 Sept. 1863; 1, 30 Dec. 1865; 22 Dec. 1873. Montreal Transcript, 13, 17 Sept., 4 Oct., 18 Dec. 1862; 3 Oct. 1864. Pilot (Montreal), 30 Sept. 1858. Antwerp Universal Exhibition, 1885, official catalogue of the Canadian section (London, 1885). Canada at the Universal Exhibition of 1855 (Toronto, 1856). Canada directory, 1853, 1857–58. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), 2: 383. The Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, 1886; official catalogue of the Canadian section (London, 1886). Mercantile agency reference book, 1866, 1881, 1887. Montreal directory, 1852–53. F. W. Terrill, A chronology of Montreal and of Canada from A.D. 1752 to A.D. 1893 . . . (Montreal, 1893). Golden jubilee of St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum: the work of fathers Dowd, O’Brien and Quinlivan, with biographies and illustrations, ed. J. J. Curran (Montreal, 1902). Industries of Canada, city of Montreal, historical and descriptive review, leading firms and moneyed institutions (Montreal, 1886). Montreal Board of Trade, A souvenir of the opening of the new building, one thousand eight hundred and ninety three (Montreal, 1893). Montreal business sketches . . . (Montreal, 1864). Montreal illustrated, 1894 . . . (Montreal, ). Special number of the “Dominion Illustrated” devoted to Montreal, the commercial metropolis of Canada (Montreal, 1891).