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The Writing-Arm Windsor
"One of commodious seat having a bracket with a drawer underneath in which one can keep quills and sand, the bracket is useful to hold our account books and other papers and enables us to quote from the books those things that need our attention," wrote a Philadelphian in 1763. He was describing a writing-arm Windsor which he had admired at the home of a friend, and which he promptly ordered for himself from "Richmond on Sassafras Street, a joiner of much repute who has come out from the motherland."
Windsor chairs had first appeared in Philadelphia nearly forty years before and had soon become so popular that craftsmen specializing in their making were found in growing numbers elsewhere, especially in New England and New York. This variation of the Windsor appears also to have originated in Philadelphia and to have remained in favor for almost a hundred years.
A novelty in the 1760's, the first of them probably had a detachable writing arm. Then came the sturdier, broad writing tablet, rigid or swinging, which was an integral part of the chair. Further developments included small drawers attached to the underside of either the writing tablet or seat and quite often a candlestick slide, usually at the outer end of the writing arm.
This ingenious piece is an excellent example of the way American craftsmen adapted furniture to serve special needs. The Windsor chair as originally made in England was itself an adaptation since it was largely the work of wheel wrights. Using the tools and technique for fashioning a wagon wheel, they transformed the spokes into spindles, the rim, steamed and bent, into the curved arm and the hub into a thick, one-piece seat, often saddled to be bodyconforming. Legs, spindles, and arm were put together with socket joints as with the parts of a wheel.
From the number of books recording life in America during colonial times, from the quantities of personal correspondence and the scores of account ledgers that have survived, it is apparent that, from an early date, Americans were much addicted to taking pen in hand. This characteristic became especially pronounced in the years between 1760 and 1775. Men in New England wanted to know what was happening in the other colonies, just as those living in the latter were keen to learn what their New England contemporaries were thinking and doing. Letter mail of that time was considerably swelled as a result. Not all of it was penned at desks or secretaries.
The writing-arm Windsor by no means took the place of a desk but it was a convenient adjunct, one that could be moved about easily to a spot where the light was better or pulled close to the fire on a cold day. Made to suit the taste of the individual buyer, design details varied. One originally owned by Thomas Jefferson is a simple comb-back with a plain writing tablet having neither drawer nor candle slide. Its distinctive feature is a revolving seat similar to the modern office armchair. It must be dated before 1776 since in it was written the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Benjamin Franklin, who had his finger in so many inventive pies, was apparently satisfied with the plainest of writing-arm Windsors without carving on comb or elaborate spindle turnings. The writing arm was rigid and supported by three turned uprights.
These specially made chairs were produced in the comb-back first and then in the low-back, bow-back, and rod-back types. Never made in such quantity as the regular armchair Windsors a good number of comfortably-off households had them. Turnings of legs, stretchers and spindles and other details reflected those common to Pennsylvania, New York and New England provenance. From these details, date and place of making can often be determined. For instance, the comb-back and low-back types were mostly made in Philadelphia and could be dated between 1760 and 1790.
New England was partial to the bow-back from 1760 to 1820, although other types were made there such as the comb-back (Illustration 9). This chair was made between 1760 and 1775 in Connecticut as indicated by the leg-turnings with longer halves tapering sharply from the baluster-shaping above. The same turnings are repeated in the front-arm upright and those supporting the writing tablet. The chair still retains its original bottle green paint, the color most often used for finishing Windsors in New England.
The rod-back, showing the influence of the Sheraton period, was in favor from about 1800 to 1830 (Illustration 10) . After that, the heavy continuousarm Windsor with horse-shoe back, appeared. This less desirable type was a revival of the earlier low-back type and was also made with the writing arm until about 1860.