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Our Rich History: Henry Boyd, once a slave, became a prominent African-American furniture maker


By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Henry Boyd was born on a Kentucky plantation as a slave in 1802. For the first 18 years of his life, he would remain a slave.

Boyd was apprenticed out to a cabinet maker. He had a tremendous talent for carpentry. His woodworking skills and his strong work ethic combined to provide a path out of slavery and poverty.

Boyd was permitted to accept additional work assignments to earn his freedom. For example, he worked for a salt works company, chopping wood and keeping an eye on the boiling pots reducing the salt. Boyd eventually made enough to gain his freedom.

Henry Boyd

At 24-years-old, in 1826, Boyd arrived in Cincinnati. Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati, bordered the slave state of Kentucky and was not a welcoming city for blacks. Boyd found this out firsthand. Arriving nearly broke, the skilled carpenter set about finding a means to support himself. Although Cincinnati was a bustling place full of opportunities for employment, no one would hire him for a skilled position. One shop that considered hiring him backed down when its white workers threatened to quit.

To make ends meet, Boyd found work on Cincinnati’s riverfront. Many African Americans and Irish found employment there, working for stores as stevedores, unloading cargo from the many steamboats at the city’s public landing.

His hard work and commitment enabled him to escape this backbreaking work. Boyd became a janitor at a store.

One day, when a white carpenter showed up too drunk to work, Boyd built a counter for the storekeeper. This impressed his boss so much that he contracted him for other construction projects. Through word of mouth, Boyd’s talent began to break down the racism he originally encountered and enabled him to pick up more contracting jobs, working alongside white carpenters. With the money earned from his store job and the side carpentry projects, he was able to put aside money for something special. No, it wasn’t to further his career or make his life more comfortable in the Queen City — it was to purchase the freedom of a brother and a sister.

Henry Boyd accumulated enough money to purchase his own workshop for woodworking. His workshop soon grew to encompass four buildings located at the corner of Eighth and Broadway in Cincinnati. Here, Boyd would build and assemble bedframes of his own design, the Boyd Bedstead. This was an improvement over existing bedframes of the day. The Boyd Bedstead utilized a right and left wood screw process, with swelled rails, making for a sturdier fit to endure more stress. This revolutionary new design was developed by Boyd. He was unable to obtain a patent for it, due to the color of his skin.

One of Henry Boyd’s famous bedsteads. (Photo by Steve Preston.)

In 1833, George Porter, a cabinet maker was issued a patent for the technology used in Boyd’s beds. It is not known if Boyd was of assistance in getting this done. Despite the barriers put in his way, his bed and shop that made it flourished. The wealth he accumulated from his work allowed for him to house his family in a dwelling on New Street in downtown.

Not only was his bedstead breaking new ground, so were Boyd’s work practices. Employing 20-50 people at any given time, he operated an integrated workplace. In this setting Boyd’s bedstead became extremely popular. Prominent Cincinnatians of the time, including Charles Cist, purchased his bedsteads.

Boyd’s bedstead started to be duplicated by others. Therefore, he stamped his name on each frame so that people would know that they were receiving the real Boyd Bedstead. The H. Boyd Company, as his business was known, catered to hotels as well as individuals. In 1844, the company produced over 1,000 beds. By 1855, H. Boyd Company had expanded to include a showroom that also displayed his parlor furniture.

The popularity and success of the fully integrated H. Boyd Company was not appreciated by some. His factory was the target of arsonists. Twice his business was burned to the ground and he rebuilt. Sadly, after a third fire destroyed his business, insurance companies would no longer insure him and in 1862 Boyd closed his doors for good.

Boyd had acquired enough wealth to live out his retirement comfortably at his New Street address. His successful business venture with the Boyd Bedstead would not be the only operation he ran successfully.

Throughout the years leading to the Civil War, Boyd had been active in the Underground Railroad as a conductor. Well known in abolitionist circles, Boyd would house runaway slaves in an alleged secret room he had built that could shelter up to five people. So active was Boyd in the Underground Railroad, that many others of the time, such as abolitionist Huntington Lyman, thought Boyd’s home was the first stop once across the Ohio River and not the home of Levi Coffin. His home was welcoming to the needy as well. It is said he took care of a man of over 100 years of age who had been left at the riverfront to die.

An astute and observant man, Boyd believed that the cholera outbreak of 1832 was waterborne. His thoughts were even posted in local newspapers, but to no avail as no one paid heed to his warnings. Boyd would live out the rest of his life in relative comfort at his New Street residence.

On March 1, 1886, Henry Boyd passed away at the age of 83. Despite his success and prominence within the community, Boyd was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Spring Grove Cemetery.

His resting place may be forgotten but his bedstead is certainly not. Boyd’s beds are sought out by collectors and demand top dollar at auction.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

To see all of the NKyTribune’s Our Rich History columns, click here.


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One Comment

  1. ruth bamberger says:

    I knew of Henry Boyd, based on research I have done on the abolition movement in pre Civil War
    Cincinnati. This description of Boyd’s life and work well illustrates the contributions that African Americans have made to our area. This is a history that unfortunately goes unnoticed.

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