Celebrate homegrown talent with products made in the United States.
by Ashley Trent
When one looks back upon the history of the United States, it is astonishing how much has happened in a relatively brief period of time. Part of our young country’s success in industry, politics, education and other realms is thanks to our nation’s founders — a group of assiduous go-getters who desired, among many things, to establish independence and solidify inalienable freedoms that would allow them to pursue their dreams.
Today’s American inventors, designers and manufacturers share that same drive. Fueled with creativity and perseverance, these entrepreneurs and industry leaders are carrying on our nation’s tradition of innovation and development. You can support the tradition of American craftsmanship by selling gifts and accessories that are made in the U.S. In this feature, we focus on products that reflect American traditions and the stories of the people who are behind these products.
Togetherness and solidarity are mainstays when it comes to quintessential American culture; the family members who own and work at Vaillancourt Folk Art have placed these values at the forefront of their business. The company, which specializes in Christmas collectibles, began in 1984 when Gary Vaillancourt gave his wife, Judi, an inspiring Christmas present: three antique chocolate moulds.
The thoughtful gift led the couple to explore the possibility of starting their own family business in which they could produce hand-painted chalkware figures using the vintage moulds. Judi would then paint the figures by hand with bright colors that would enhance the artistry of the mould-makers’ original work; she was amazed at how richly intricate the figures were and appreciated the way the painted versions could show more detail and emotion than chocolate versions would. The figures were a hit with Christmas collectors, and Vaillancourt Folk Art was born.
Since receiving her first three moulds, Judi’s collection has grown to nearly 10,000 antique moulds, which are used to create the Sutton, Massachusetts-based company’s figurines. The extensive collection has allowed Vaillancourt Folk Art to solidify its reputation as a source for American-made holiday keepsakes.
“The defining characteristics of our products are several,” notes Gary. “First of all, all of our products are cast in antique confectionery moulds circa 1850-1950. This creates a product that is truly historic, because we are painting figures that were created in moulds that truly reflect the history of their country.”
Gary says that the figures are popular among collectors who appreciate antiques as well as Christmas enthusiasts who are drawn to the history and traditions of the holiday. “Our products are historically accurate and truly translate the folklore and history of Santa that has been long lost,” he explains. “Many collectors marvel not only at the painting detail but at the story these figures tell.” The historical factor is all the more powerful, adds Gary, because of Judi’s dedication to maintaining authentic Christmas themes; he says she has taken much pride in researching the holiday to perfect her artwork. “Her Christmas library is outstanding, and her understanding of worldwide Christmas traditions brings life to her figures.”
As the company has grown through the years, Gary and Judi have selected talented artists to take part in painting the figures by hand; each piece, explains Gary, takes roughly 16 people three weeks to produce. All the figures are signed, dated and numbered in the Vaillancourt Folk Art studio, which is located in a large 1820s textile mill. The studio is even open to the public for tours. “The painters are in the middle of our retail gallery and near the Christmas m u s e u m , ” says Gary. The tours, he adds, benefit both the c o n s ume r s ‘ under s tanding of how the product is made as well as the artists’ inspiration and drive to create quality pieces. “There are not many American companies producing Christmas [collectibles], and visitors are amazed to see product being created before their eyes. Our painters love to interact with the customers, and the customer gets a true appreciation of what hand-painted means. It also builds an understanding of the price differences between Americanmade and foreign-made. Our painters also are truly appreciative of the collectors who buy their work, and that translates very well.”
Many of the artists at Vaillancourt Folk Art have a degree in fine art; the average tenure with the company is an impressive 16 years. “We have two of our painters who have been with us for 25 years,” says Gary. “Our staff’s ability to reproduce Judi’s designs in such high quality has set us apart in the industry. The dedication and care of our staff has been a blessing.”
Because the company is so respected within the art community, a position as an artist with Vaillancourt Folk Art is akin to a dream job for many painters. “The last time we hired a new painter was five years ago, and we had more than 75 artists with formal degrees and master’s apply for the job,” notes Gary. “This level of talent has made us unique.”
What’s more, Gary and Judi are strong believers that a key to their success is having a variety of ages among their employees to create the best chemistry; there is always someone over the age of 75 working at Vaillancourt Folk Art. “Last year, Lydia Anderson retired at the age of 92 after 20 years of service,” says Gary. “She joined us when her older sister recommended her highly; it was a very good recommendation.”
Gary appreciates the dedication of his staff, and he also takes pride in the company’s involvement in the community and with charities. Vaillancourt Folk Art has designed a Santa figure each year since 1990 to benefit the Starlight Children’s Foundation. “Through the sales of this Santa, we have granted 104 wishes to children and purchased 14 fun centers for pediatric intensive-care units at a local hospital,” says Gary. “These fun centers feature televisions, DVD players and gaming devices on wheels to be used at the hospital intensive-care units.” Being able to give back in this way, says Gary, is not only an honor, but it is also reflective of the spirit of the company.
The Second Generation
One of the biggest joys to come to Gary and Judi was when their son chose to become an integral part of the family business. “The tangible results of our business have been returned many times in a thousand different ways, but the best of all was the actions of our son Luke,” explains Gary. “Luke graduated with a master’s in new media design from Rochester Institute of Technology. He was offered a professorship and several high-powered web jobs in New York. Against our advice, he moved back to Sutton because he wanted to raise his family in the environment in which he was raised. After several years, he joined the business. What better endorsement of our values than having your child want to return home to raise his family?”
The Vaillancourt family’s cooperation and clear aspirations have maintained the company’s productivity and creativity. “It has been amazing to us how much these actions have come back to our family both on a personal and business level,” says Gary. “Someone always said that what you give gets returned twofold, and I could not agree more.”
There are some smells that are distinctly American. Take apple pie — for generations, Americans have tied this scent to the harvest season, and it is linked to memories of apple picking, gathering with family for holidays and welcoming the onset of autumn.
Lakeshore Candle Company has ingeniously incorporated these native aromas into its candles and scented products. In scents such as Frasier Fir, Indian Summer and Michigan Cherry, the collection is both comforting and enticing to consumers who appreciate the company’s respect for our country’s regional characteristics.
Jon Haveman, president of Michigan-based Lakeshore Candle Company, says his company’s goal is “to create a handpoured scented candle with the highe s t – quality burn and a fragrance throw that is true to the scent.” To achieve this, the candles are poured in stages with a higher fragrance load, and the company uses premium soy-wax blends. “Sure, it takes more time for our candle artisans to hand-pour each candle, but the result is well worth their efforts,” explains Jon.
Lakeshore Candle Company started producing and shipping in wholesale volume in 2006 with an initial line of 20 scents; there are now 44 scents in the collection, with some of the most recently popular being Lemongrass, Georgia Peach, Lavender Eucalyptus and Lilac. “This year, we added four new fragrances launched in January: Vanilla Lime, Cranberry Clementine, Spiced Granola and Pomegranate,” says Jon. “We also expanded our collection to include room sprays and bath salts to complement our candle line.”
In tune with the eco-friendly movement, Lakeshore Candle Company moved to a greener manufacturing facility in 2009. The facility was designed and built to specifications that would improve its energy consumption, manufacturing needs and capabilities. “From the start, we have made a conscious decision to keep our manufacturing in the U.S. and build our supply chain with as many U.S.-based suppliers as possible,” says Jon. “For us, making this a priority was easy. We want our country to thrive on manufacturing as it once did. This takes conscious thought on what we purchase in our everyday lives.”
It is the sum of various small details that have helped Lakeshore Candle Company become successful so quickly. Jon prides himself on his company’s adherence to good, old-fashioned customer service. “We strive to have the best customer service in the industry with average turnaround on orders of 24 hours from order receipt,” he says. “This saves our customers from tying up valuable funds and back-stock space with our products.” Jon is confident that Lakeshore Candle Company’s elegant products and good-natured service will help the company continue to grow. “Our customers have, and always will be, our focus, and we continue to listen and respond to their ever-changing needs.”
Also eager to meet the needs of consumers — particularly women — is Cinda Boomershine, founder of Cinda B, a company known for its colorful bags and accessories. With a background in interior design, Cinda creates the concepts for all her products in her home office in Atlanta. Each and every piece is then manufactured in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Cinda employs nearly 100 talented seamstresses with whom she partnered through a lucky connection.
“My partners in Indiana actually found me through a mutual business acquaintance; the timing could not have been better for either of us,” she explains. As it turns out, the Indiana factory had been manufacturing bags for another company for many years; when this company chose to move production overseas, “they were left with a factory full of talented seamstresses with nothing to sew,” explains Cinda. “On the other hand, I had a product and not enough people to sew it. My line was growing rapidly, and my original manufacturer in California just couldn’t keep up. So it was a perfect partnership. The Indiana factory gives me unparalleled expertise, talent and capacity, while I give them a growing product line to produce. It is a true win-win situation.”
Cinda believes that her products possess special, defining qualities that would be eliminated if she moved production out of the country. “I know for a fact that the quality of our bags would suffer greatly if they were not manufactured in the USA,” she says, adding that her choice to remain stateside reassures her on multiple levels. “Obviously, from an economic point of view, keeping our manufacturing dollars in the States greatly impacts our economy. But to me, it is so much more than that. It is about the people and families who are directly and immediately affected by keeping production here. I wish everyone could walk through our factory in Indiana and speak with our seamstresses. They are all just so thankful to still have a job. They can put food on their tables, buy clothes for their kids and keep a roof over their heads all because we’re designing and sewing products here and people are, thankfully, excited about buying them. Keeping production in the U.S. is truly a team effort among me, our factory and consumers who realize the importance of buying American-made products.”
And more consumers, says Cinda, are recognizing the importance of her bags’ “proudly made in the USA” tags. “When I launched Cinda B in 2004, consumers did not seem to care as much at that time that my bags were made here. Now, with the changes in our economy, people directly connect the fact that buying American-made products means more American jobs.”
For Our Posterity
Although American-made gifts and accessories may seem like small ways of supporting the economy, it is through these items that we’ve been able to continuously support the creative industries that have defined our country for years. “Throughout the history of the U.S., we have been noted for our craftsmanship, historical accuracy and innovation,” explains Gary of Vaillancourt Folk Art. “The ability to provide work for trained artists is so important both to the economy and the culture of our country.”
Like many of the people behind American gift companies, Gary believes that consumers are recognizing that American products are oftentimes better reflective of our country’s history, and what may seem like a higher price tag is actually an investment in our culture. “While most consumers shop for price, there is a tremendous amount of people who value traditions and family values. These are the folks that care about quality and craftsmanship. It is important to continue our heritage and to inspire future generations of American craftsmen and artists. Without this craftsmanship and art, we lose so much as a society.”
Trent, A. (2010, June). American traditions. Giftware News, 35(6), 78 – http://www.ggdplus.com/digitals/gwnplus/0610GGD/78.html