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The Decorated Chair Of The 1800's
( Article orginally published September 1963 )
Among the various types of decorated chairs of the 1800's the Hitchcock chair is probably the most familiar, the most sought for and certainly the most produced today. In fact, they have been reproduced from the earliest days of their manufacture. It is known that workers from Hitehcocks' factory in Hitchcock'sville, Connecticut, migrated to New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and probably to other places, where they started the manufacture of this style of chair. In Boston a rocker of the type first made in Hitchcock'sville was manufactured and acquired the name of "Boston Rocker," by which everyone knows it today.
Lambert Hitchcock manufactured chairs and rockers with rush seats, cane, and plank seats. On the back of many of his chair seats Hitchcack stenciled his name and factory location. Today these chairs are highly prized.
In recent years the old Hitchcock factory in its original location, now known as Riverton, is producing reproductions of the old chairs although the method of stenciling varies from the original.
The Hitchcock type of chair with back back slat and pillow has been referred to as a "New Hampshire Hitchcock" and, as the variety is common in the northern part of Massachusetts, it is easy to imagine that they came down from New Hamshire.
Many of the early stencil artists were itinerant. William Page Eaton was considered one of the best of the early stencil artists, had a shop on Fulton Street in Boston and later worked at various other shops. Eventually he located in New Hampshire where he carried on his trade, assisted by a daughter. Eaton was one of the few craftsmen of stenciled designs who occasionally put his name on his work.
Miss Janet Waring, author of a book on stenciling published in 1937, made mention of Eaton's work. This book and "Early American Decoration," by Esther Stevens Brazer (1940), are largely responsible for the great revival of interest in all types of early decoration, not only on chairs, but on trays, boxes, mirrors, chests, and other types of furniture.
Not only Hitchcock type chairs were decorated in New England and New York, but various other styles including Windsors, although the latter originated before the 1800's in England. In New 1796, "Windsor chair making" was advertised. In 1790 in Vermont a chair factory was started by John White whose son followed the trade and made especially fine Windsors which are treasured today. Many of his chairs were "step-down Windsors," some of which were decorated.
Some chairs were decorated to imitate grained effect on brown painted backgrounds, the seats often being mottled; others were painted white or green, decorated with painted motifs, stenciled designs, or both.
Black painted backgrounds over red, with red evident through the black paint in places, were the most common over the vears, especially for Hitchcock types.
About 1845, the "Vase back" chair, or "Urn back" chair became popular. The wide vertical middle slat was shaped like an urn or vase. Sometimes it was called "Fiddleback" but the name seemed poorly chosen. This type usually had a cane seat and lent itself very well to decoration. This chair is less difficult to locate today than the Hitchcock and it makes a fine appearance in any room of the house, and is becoming a favorite. A much decorated "vase back" chair (illustrated) is one of a set of six decorated by Eaton and bears his name at the base of the vase.
One of the best known Hitchcock's is the "bolster" or "roll back" chair with a medium upper slat and a narrower slat below.
Perhaps the rarest of the Hitchcock chairs and the finest is the Eagle back with "pillow top." The one illustrated shows the eagle cut out in silhouette while most of these chairs have a solid slat upon which the eagle is stenciled.
The cornucopia back chair is another fine type which is quite uncommon.
The "crown top" chair, sometimes designated as "crest top," is handsome. The back slat on these varies with either a plain wide slat, a button back, or even a "turtle back."
A deep debt is owed to Janet Waring and Esther Stevens Brazer for their part in restoring the popularity of the beautiful decorated chair of the 1800's by their interest, research and teaching as shown in their respective books.