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New England Slat Back ChairAuthor: Larry Freeman
( Article orginally published March 1947 by Hobbies )
A few years ago, when I had more time than money to spend at auctions about the only thing that regularly fell my way was an old slat back chair. I used to bid fifty cents or a dollar on the broken remains of these once sturdy chairs just to help the auctioneer out. Frequently I was the only bidder. Today I notice they have greatly appreciated in value, with many people bidding competitively to finish out sets they have started.
I had occasion, recently, to examine my own collection of ladder-backs in the light of examples preserved in old New England houses and museums. It is somewhat of a surprise to find many of these chairs which antedate the popular Windsor and which, when properly finished with new rush seat, are just as charming. The growing appreciation of their worth makes classification of types and ages imperative.
Slat-back, rush-seated chairs were made in New England almost from the landings on Plymouth Rock. But those commonly seen date from approximately 1720 to 1820, at which time fancy Sheratons and Hitchcocks gained in popular favor over the more sturdy slat-back.
To determine the age and value of a slat-back chair, look closely at the turning, the slats and stretchers. The earliest are usually the crudest, with the front and rear post roughly turned and without finial. Another point is the stretchers. At first these were split from a block and shaved to a round form. The only lathe turning, if any, was done on the ends that inserted into the chair legs. Three and four slats were then made out of oak, ash or maple and inserted across the back uprights. It took much less skill to make crude ladder-backs than it did the curved Windsors that were their contemporaries. But they were far more sturdy and hence many more have survived the vicissitudes of time. Rush seating without the flat-wood former inserts is older than the splint and basket seating material found on some varieties.
A more sophisticated chair of the late 18th century has the front seatbar extend over the legs, with their ends inserted into squared ends. This was more work for the chair-maker, but avoided the possible discomfort to the sitter due to having the top of the front legs projecting above the seat corners. In this type of construction it is usual for the front legs to be turned in a modified vase pattern.
The student of furniture style should always remember that the, general lines of a piece are of but little importance compared with the details of design and construction which appear in various places upon the article in question. Tin the matter. of slat-back chairs, one of these details is the finial or decorative contours of the tops of the back posts. Another element of importance is the sort and amount of turning which appears on the front legs and back posts. Some of the slat-back chairs in my collection have quite different and harmonious turning on the front legs and the back. And while this may have interested the original chaismaker, it does not enhance their value today. Sausage turnings between the insertion of back slats add to value. Even the way in which the slats themselves are made is very important. The wide, curved slat, while most comfortable and common, is not in sufficient rarity to command a premium price. Instead the use of narrow rods and handcarved narrow strips across the back are the types highly valued by chair collectors.
As a rule, the older chairs, the larger the diameter of the upright members. One and three-quarters to two inch diameter is found on the earliest chairs. The majority in my collection are later, and of about one and one-half inch diameter.
Height of the chair seat is often an item that keeps many a would-be purchaser away from slat-back. Slatback chairs are low. Do not let the uninformed tell you these chairs have been cut off. Recall instead that the pre-victorian table was 26 inches high instead of the present 30 inch height. Slat-back chairs can be used at thirty-inch tables either by adding a two-inch button turning to each leg, pegged in and glued for permanence, or by placing cushions on the seats. I recall a very sturdy set still in use in a Vermont farmstead. Generations had used these chairs at table; and the present ones, wanting to bring their height up a bit in the world, had added hooked rug cushions. I don't believe I have ever seen more attractive dining chairs than these. I am sure that the lowly and common ladder-back, whether with three or four slats, whether with splint or rushseat, whether 'with arms or no, will take its rightful place along with the fancy Sheraton and the delicate Windsor in the annals of American craftsmanship.