From Bicycles to Furniture: A Brief Historical Sketch of the Toledo Metal Furniture Company’s First Decade
Historical sketch by: Arjun Sabharwal, Marty Uhl*
Capitalism in America was a robust system for enduring ideas, innovation, perseverance, and (of course) capital; from the 1890s through the 1920s, Toledo represented a microcosm of that economic system. This is where glass, scales, automobiles, and countless other products—including scales--headed for the world’s markets.
Aerial view of Downtown Toledo, 1897. Source: Images in Time, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library
Toledo Metal Furniture Company occupied an important place in Toledo’s industrial history that most associate with glass today. Businesses like Acklin Stamping, American Bicycle Company, Gendron Wheel Company, Harris Toy Company, Toledo Scale, and others paint a more diversified industrial picture building on a strong American Steel industry (albeit surviving the steel shortage during World War I.) and the full throttle of the capitalist economic system. Its advantageous location at the junction of marine, railroad, and (later) surface transportation routes has contributed to Toledo’s rise as one of the manufacturing hubs in the country. Location, opportunities, and nexus have served as critical backdrop for Toledo Metal Furniture Company in the first decade of the 1900s.
Early beginnings: Bicycle Emporium (1897-1899)
The roots of Toledo Metal Furniture Company can be traced back to Uhl's Cycle Emporium, a bicycle repair shop founded by Clement R. and Philip Edward Uhl on March 1, 1898. Its first location was a 20 ft sq. frame office in 1897 on the corner of Monroe and Eleventh Streets in Downtown Toledo where it was subsequently expanded by another 20x50 ft addition in 1898 and later in 1899 and 1900.
Uhl Brothers Bicycle Emporium on Monroe and 11th streets in 1897 (left) and an inside look at the Uhl Bicycle Emporium (center). Uhl Bicycle Emporium ad in the 1897 Polk City Directory (right). Sources: Marty Uhl and Polk City Directory, 1897, p. 115.
Uhl Brothers Company (1899-1904): Transition
In 1899, with their brothers Tom, Otto, Bob, Joe, and Henry partnering, they have incorporated “Uhl Brothers Company” and moved across Monroe Street into the Chiesa Building where they manufactured bicycles and other novelties like campaign buttons and face public figures such as President William McKinley (after his assassination in 1901).
The growth of the automobile industry has steered manufacturing focus away from the bicycles and towards automobiles, causing bicycle business to drop and moving the company towards metal furniture. The rising popularity of ice cream parlors and more ergonomic drafting stools has counterweighed the waning popularity of bicycles. Their first furniture order was for the soda fountain and ice cream parlors by Hoffman & Company on Summit. Later, Toledo Metal Furniture produced the tables for Edison Phonograph Works (see the blueprint in the slideshow). Their products have also included school desks, which they produced by the thousands.
The Uhl Brothers Company produced thousands of school desks such as the one seating Tom Uhl.
Toledo Metal Furniture Company (1904-1976)
After moving to 25 South Huron Street (between Washington and Layette Streets), the company name changed in 1904 to Toledo Metal Furniture Company with Philip E. Uhl as president, Joseph F. L. Uhl as secretary and general manager; and Clement R. Uhl, vice president and superintendent.
Philip E. (left) and Clement R. Uhl (right). Sources: Killits, John Milton. 1923. Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio, 1623-1923. Vol. III The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. p. 182., and Marty Uhl.
Clement’s 1902 design of the Uhl Art Steel Chair was patented the same year as an invention by Joseph, thus signaling the company’s future focus on metal furniture. The following photographs show Clement in the process of designing with the other brothers demonstrating and testing their furniture for strength.
Clement's first drawing of the original 151 chair-1902 (left). Clement Uhl working on another design (right).
Patent No. 705,488 dated July 22, 1902, titled Construction of Metal Furniture (Source: United States Patent Office, Google Patents)
This design was soon followed by another one of Joseph’s patent—a revolving metal chair—submitted in 1905. By this time, the company had begun its transition towards metal furniture. A new line of Uhl Art Steel furniture has become a widely marketed product by the company under its new name Toledo Metal Furniture Company.
Joseph’s 1905 Patent No. 782,932 dated February 21, 1905 was titled “Revolving Metal Chair” (Source: United States Patent Office, Google Patents)
Demonstration of a Uhl chair (left). Tom Uhl testing the strength of a Uhl chair (center). Tom, Otto, Phil and Henry Uhl demonstrating the strength of their furniture (right).
As business expanded by 1910, they moved to the former site of the Maumee Cycle Company (on Hastings Ave near Dorr Street) with their production focusing on steel chairs, typewriter stands, cabinets, typewriter chairs, desks, and stools. The company became “one of the important manufacturing enterprises of the city”, as its operations had significantly expanded afterwards. After 1976, the company underwent successive mergers with entities outside Ohio until its dissolution in 1983.
Inside Toledo Metal Furniture: production floor (left), customer cafeteria (center), and Uhl Brothers customer (right)
Cultural Contributions to Toledo Society
In private life, members of the Uhl family had already been involved in the cultural life of Toledo and active in performing with and conducting the Uhl's Concert Band. Even before establishing their family business, they had already formed their orchestra. These activities were known to have been associated with a notable level of education, class, and prestige in those times.
Twelve Uhl Brothers had their own orchestra in the late 1890s (left), Jos. Uhl has conducted the orchestra for large audiences in 1896 and 97 (center),Henry and Willi Uhl in the Uhl Concert Band (right)
Countless publications in the forms of books, research articles, and trade magazines have focused on Toledo’s commercial and industrial history and more specifically on the glass industry, scales, and the retail sector. There remain companies such as Toledo Metal Furniture Company and many others that have received less attention but nonetheless contributed significantly to the region’s economy. The fact that they had operated for almost a century speaks to their adaptability and focus on specific products and markets. In that respect, they are comparable to companies like Acklin Stamping, which supplied metal components for machinery produced by other companies. Advertisements, patents, public data, and privately held records may enable a more analytic study of this company’s impact on the regional economy and perhaps beyond. The historical study of Toledo Metal Furniture Company (and before that, Uhl’s Bicycle Emporium and the Uhl Brothers) can also shed light on the intermingling of cultural and professional commitments in bygone societies where class, education, and social nexus shaped professional and commercial success; alas, such a specific focus is well beyond this historical sketch.
*Unless otherwise noted in the captions, all images were contributed by Mr. Marty Uhl
 The 1897 Polk City Directory already lists this company in 1897.
 The Brace, 1937, p. 1.
 Killits, John Milton. 1923. Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio, 1623-1923. Vol. III The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, p. 182.
 The Brace 1937, p.1.
 Opencorporates. n.d. “The Toledo Metal Furniture Company”.
Killits, John Milton. 1923. Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio, 1623-1923. Vol. III The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. P. 182-84.
Opencorporates.com. n.d. “The Toledo Metal Furniture Company.” https://opencorporates.com/ companies/us_oh/18393.
Philip “Skip” Uhl (Obituary). December 29, 2011. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/toledoblade/name/philip-uhl-obituary?id=24364490
Toledo Metal Furniture Company. January 1957. “1897-1957.” The Brace: Vol. 4, no. 1 (Sixtieth Anniversary issue), p. 1.i
UHL ART: Beginnings. 2015. http://www.uhlart.com/.