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The Puritan Century Wainscot Chair

It is generally conceded that the little group of Pilgrims who set foot on Plymouth Rock over 335 years ago brought practically no household furnishings with them. But the memory of the simple pieces of furniture they had known in their English provincial homes was still vivid.

Consequently, as soon as they had proper houses, their cabinetmakers, then known as "joiners," began making the provincial furniture to which they were accustomed, such as the wainscot chair, the turned spindle chair, and the slat back. Of these, the wainscot chair is the most formal. No house had more than one and that would only be found in the home of an important and prosperous man.

Chairs were few and far between during the first forty years of colonization. Those few were of the armchair type, reserved for Father as head of the house. Such lesser folk as women and children sat on stools and so made their backs strong and straight. For that matter, Father was more grand than comfortable, since his chair, whether architectural or turned in construction, had a straight uncompromising back and a plain, flat board seat, painfully hard to moderns accustomed to springs and cushions. Chairs were not designed for comfort but as a mark of distinction.

English chairs were no more comfortable at that time. Some of them were handsomely carved but the same type of construction held: a stout underbody with front posts turned, substantial box stretchers at top and bottom, plain board seat, arms curving downward slightly from the back and the back itself either covered completely with an elaborate carved design or plain with a carved panel in geometric pattern.

The name wainscot reflects its construction, particularly the back which, like woodwork used for room walls, is constructed of panelwork framed by stiles and rails. Apparently only a limited number of wainscots were made in America. Those few were produced in New England of native white oak. A very few were also brought over from England about 1630 to 1640 during the height of the Puritan migration and in a measure served as models for some of the more elaborate pieces made here. Ones of the Hepplewhite influence or the turned but unreeded legs of the Sheraton style. It was severely plain but still a Pembroke. Today this very quality, added to general usefulness, make it a welcome addition to the modern home.

Although Chippendale's book of furniture designs was owned and used by many of the leading American cabinetmakers, few of them did much with those in the Chinese manner. The characteristic fretwork, an interlaced pattern done either in pierced silhouette or carved in low relief, was an intricate detail to be attempted only by an experienced and able craftsman. It was expensive and, moreover, a slavish copy of Chinese Chippendale designs would have been too ornate for American tastes.

One of the few who adapted this detail in a manner palatable to American taste was John Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island. He took Chippendale's Pembroke design with its wide bed and shallow leaves, gave it a plain rectangular outline, set it on square legs ornamented with fluting and connected them with a saltire stretcher ornamented in a simple geometric fretwork pattern. He also added fretwork brackets at the joinings of legs and bed. Every detail, intricate or plain, reflected the original Chippendale design with an American accent. He made this table between 1760 and 1770. Born in 1732, he saw the end of the Chippendale era but was still young enough to adjust to the new styles of Hepplewhite and Sheraton and his skill and artistic ability produced furniture as light and delicate as the earlier style was sturdy and elaborate.

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