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The Hitchcock Chair
( Article orginally published December 1953 )
In 1818 Lambert Hitchcock settled in the little town of Barkhamsted in western Connecticut and established a cabinet and chair factory. Born in Cheshire, Connecticut, June 28, 1795, he was the son of John Lee Hitchcock, a Revolutionary soldier who could trace his ancestry back to Matthias Hitchcock who came to Boston from London in 1635. In his little shop, Hitchcock at first made only parts of chairs which he shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, and other points in the South where they were assembled. The business flourished and soon became the leading industry in Barkhaansted. By 1821 a group of houses had sprung up around the factory, and this little settlement was given the name Hitchcocksville. Today it is called Riverton. By 1825 Hitchcock stopped making pans to be shipped to the southern points and turned his attention to the making of a completed chair and even today the sturdy, individual type of chair which he undoubtedly originated bears his name.
The Hitchcock chair, like the Connecticut shelf clock, was an early example of mass production and when new sold for about $1.50 retail. Although it was of several types, the general characteristics are the same in all. The frames are generally of birch or maple. The backs have a curved top with a broad gently curved back-slat. Often there is a narrow crosspiece below this broad splat and the unrights are a continuation of the legs. The front legs and the stretcher between are nicely turned in spool, ring, or vase shapes. The seats are wider at the front than at the back with straight sides and a rolled or rounded edge in front.
Chair-backs are of several kinds; the "turtle-back"; the "pillow-back"; a "cut-out" back slat; a curved back with spindles; and with a crested back. The "cut-out" back-slat is probably the rarest, and was sometimes in the form of cornucopias, eagles or scrolls. At first the chairs were grained to resemble rosewood, the red of the first coat of paint showing through the black. Later a lemon-yellow was sometimes used as the background color. Seats were first of rush, then cane, then plank. They were marked on the back with a stencil "L. Hitchcock, Hitchcocksvllle, Connecticut, Warranted," usually all on one line. Hitchcock chose his wood with care and allowed none to be used with knots or other imperfections.
The stencils used were cut from strong light-weight paper with a design of small checks, overlaid by blocks an inch square. This made it possible to keen the stenciling on a straight line. The stenciled designs used in decorating the chairs added much to their popularity. Among the popular designs were the Basket of Fruit containing pears and plums, or a bunch of grapes with leaves and a rose; the Horn of Plenty. of which there were several variations; a Fountain with Birds; and a conventionalized Fruit and Leaf pattern.
Boston rockers in both the large ar:d small size as well as a child's Boston rocker with rolling seat and crest were made. Cape Cod rockers, or as some call them, Mammy benches, were made at the Hitchcock factory. It is also probable that Lambert Hitchcock was the first to manufacture a completed rocking-chair. Although rocking chairs were known much earlier than this time, it is believed that before Hitchcock manufactured them, the rockers were made as a separate item and then fastened to a straight chair.
About 1826 Hitchcock built a large brick factory and added many more workers. At this time he had more than one hundred men, women and children working in his factory. Children applied the first coat of paint - the red undercoat. The women did the decorating, using their fingertips dipped first in oil, then in the dry bronze or gold powder. The fingertips were then rubbed over the stencil transferring the design to the chair. Color was later applied by means of a brush. The chief stencil design was on the wide back-slat but frequently decorative motifs were used on the top rail and uprights of the back and on the front seat rails. The turnings of the legs and back were often touched up with gilt. Very few Hitchcocks were originally undecorated.
Everything went well at the Hitchcock factory and business was good until sometime in 1828 and then on July 20, 1829, Lambert Hitchcock was forced into bankruptcy with liabilities of $21,525.31. The business was transferred to Rufus Holmes, Theron Rockwell, Jesse Ives and William L. Holabird as trustees who were "to sell, manage and dispose of the property in a manner most beneficial to Lambert's creditors, while he carried on the chair business as agent. This arrangement must have worked out well for all for in the Hartford Courant under date of November 27, 1832 we read:
"Notice is hereby given that the chair business lately carried on by Lambert Hitchcock as agent is now resumed by him on his own account and that his trustees are no longer interested in or responsible for the same. The subscriber will continue to manufacture chairs, and now has on hand a large and elegant assortment of chairs, made after the latest fashions, and finished in the best manner.
In 1829 Arba Alford, Jr., who had been employed by Hitchcock from the very beginning of the business was taken into partnership and the name stenciled on the back of the chairs became "Hitchcock, Alford & Co., Warranted." While Mr. Hitchcock travelled through the South, the Western states and New England selling the products of his factory, Alford managed the shop. On October 30, 1830, Lambert Hitchcock married Eunice Alford, a sister of his partner.
The name of the firm remained "Hitchcock, Alford & Co." until 1843 when Lambert opened an independent factory in Unionville, Connecticut, where he manufactured chairs similar in every way to those made at Hitchcocksville. These were marked "Lambert Hitchcock, Unionville, Connecticut." In 1836, a year after the death of his first wife Eunice, Hitchcock married Mary Ann Preston at Cazenovia, New York, and had three sons and a daughter. He died in 1852 after forty-three years of manufacturing chairs. His will named his former partner, Arba Alford, Jr., to be the executor of his estate.
After Hitchcock moved to Unionville in 1843, Arba Alford took his brother Alfred into partnership and continued to make the chair known as the Hitchcock chair under the same of "Alford & Company." In the wing of the factory "Alford & Company" also conducted a general store. In 1864 the factory was sold to Lerov and Delos Stephens who manufactured pocket rulers there for some forty years.
Naturally during all these years chairs similar in type to those made at the Hitchcock factory were made at factories in various parts of New England. Holmes and Roberts made chairs Colebrook during the years 1838-1840 but sould out to Hitchcock in 1840. Others in New England were William Moore, Jr., Seymour Watrous and J.K. Hatch but none of them reached the prominence of Lambert Hitchcock and his factory at Hitchcocksville.