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Antique Chairs And Chair Making
( Article orginally published August 1962 )
In chairs it is possible for the student of American furniture-making to study the chronological development of furniture more easily than in any other article. Perhaps the table may be considered as the one exception to this statement.
The sideboard, for instance, did not appear until the days of the Hepplewhite style. By that time the making of highboys and lowboys, so popular in the William and Mary, the Queen Anne, and the Chippendale periods, was largely discontinued by the Colonial cabinet-makers.
Chairs, however, were made in all the period styles that encompassed the American scene. A thorough study of the subject would require the space of a very large book.
Today, we shall endeavor by means of illustrations to show the chronological development, from the wainscot chair through the Hitchcock of the mid 18th century.
In the early days of our country a chair was not common. Until about 1630 the joint stool, or as it was sometimes known, the "short form," filled the requirements of the settlers. Even when a family possessed a chair or two they were reserved for the head of the family and/or for an honored guest.
The Pilgrims were simple folk who had spent long years in exile in Holland. It is quite certain they brought only bare necessities with them to their new home.
Soon, however, Colonies were established around Boston. Their Puritan leaders were often persons of higher economic status. Moreover, many coming there from the west of England brought with them considerable furniture and other household goods.
Before long the settlers were constructing furniture of native woods. They copied the English pieces in the Colonies, or made others from memory, or to fill some new need.
Copying as they did, these early workmen created furniture in the Jacobean tradition with traces of the earlier Tudor, Elizabethan and Gothic, with typical carving and paneling, lunettes, strapwork, and arched and molded panels.
The chairs of this period were the wainscot, the Carver-one of which, legend says, Governor Carver brought with him on the Mayflower and, the Brewster, which is similar to the Carver but with spindles beneath the seat or arms on both. Soon there were banister-back and slat-back chairs of various types.
In the Dutch Colonies of New York, the settlers often possessed the cane chair of Jacobean inspiration brought with them from their old homes in Europe but soon copied by the local workmen. Records show that these Dutch Colonists also possessed leather chairs similar to those known as Cromwellian which had been introduced into England from Holland.
In the early days of the Southern Colonies, chairs were largely brought from the mother country. It is probable that many of the poorer Colonists in the South made chairs and other simple furniture for themselves although we have no records of chair or cabinet-makers in Charleston, S. C., before 1720, or in Virginia before 1762.
When chair-making became an important branch of cabinet-making, it was often carried on apart from that of cabinet-making by men trained in chair-making alone. Yet many of the outstanding cabinet-makers also made exquisite and beiautifuhy constructed chairs. The Goddard-Townsend group of Newport, R. L, famous for their beautiful block-front case furniture, made chairs in the Queen Anne and Chippendale tradition. Benjamin Randolph of Philadelphia was the maker of some of the most beautiful chairs ever produced in America in the Chippendale style.
He was the maker of the Chippendale wing-chair now at the Philadelp.hia Museum of Art. This is maasive in proportion, richly carved on arms, legs, and apron, and the legs terminate in heavily furred paw feet.
In 1929 this chair sold at the Reifsnyder auction in New York City for $33,000. This was the highest price ever paid at that time for an American-made chair.
In the latter part of the 18th century and early 19th century, Samuel McIntire of Salem, Mass., and Duncan Phyfe of New York City, both outstanding cabinet-makers, made chairs eagerly sought by museums and collectors today.
In 1818 Lambert Hitchcock established his shop in the town of Barkhamsted, Conn. At first he made chair parts which he shipped to Charleston, S. C., other points in the South, and as far west as Detroit and Chicago.
In 1825 he gave up this making of paxts and turned his attention to the construction of complete chairs. The Hitchcock chairs were an example of early mass production but they were Well made and well decorated. The shop was discontinued in 1846.
The Windsor chair appeared in Philadelphia about 1725 but Windsor chair-making was soon being carried on in all the Colonies. The Windsor chair-maker often limited himself to that one item.
The first simple Windsors were low priced and were used in the more modest homes. If they appeared in the more pretentious houses, they were found in the less important rooms or for outdoor use.
The Windsors have been divided into six major varieties but there are many variations which may be grouped into a seventh group under the title "miscellaneous." The six major groups are: 1. low back, 2. comb back, 3. hoop back, 4. New England type arm chair, 5. fan back, 6. loop back.
After the time covered by this article, chair-making continued unabated with the American Empire chairs, the Victorian chairs, and the modern chairs. Reproductions also are being made today of all previous varieties, with the exception, perhaps of the wainscot and the banister back.
No. 1 - WAINSCOT CHAIR - circa 1630-1680 This is the oaken chair at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., attributed to Nicholas Disbrowe (1612-1680), Hartford, Conn., circa 1662.
About 20 of these wainscot chairs are in existence today. A few are without carving. Two, which belonged to Thomas Dennis (1638-1706) of Ipswich, Mass., are elaborately carved. The carving shows some of the characteristics found on the chests of the period. One of these chairs, circa 1675, is at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine; the other is at the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.
No. 2 - CARVER CHAIR - circa 1620-1700. This Carver chair, circa 1640-1660, is at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn. It is said that the back of this chair is the best of its kind.
The Carver chair and the similar Brewster chair were named for Governor Carver and Governor Brewster of Plymouth, Mass. The original chairs were brought over in the Mayflower, legend tells us, and are today in Pilgrims Hall, Plymouth.
The Carver chairs generally have three turned horizontal rails and three vertical spindles as in the illustration, whereas the Brewsters generally have a larger number of spindles in the back, and also spindles under the arms, or under the seat, or both. They are made of ash, maple, and other woods, and generally have rush seats.
No.3 - SLAT-BACK CHAIRS - circa 1700 to present time. Turned maple and hickory slat-back of New England origin, with sausage-turned uprights, enclosing five hickory slats; open scrolled arms on turned supports continuing into sausage-turned legs with double stretchers; rush seat.
No. 4 - Turned maple slat-back arm-chair. Plain round uprights with turned vase finials and joined by four slightly arched slats; open, slightly scrolled arms; rush seat on sausage-turned legs, with double bulb-turned frontal stretcher. Pennsylvania type. The Pennsylvania slat-back differed slightly from that of New England. Whereas the vertical posts of the New England slat-backs are or namented with turned rings and other designs between the slats, the Pennsylvania slat-backs have no turnings on the vertical posts. In the New England slat-back chairs, the slats are generally straight on lower edge and curved on upper; while the Pennsylvania slat-backs are curved on both upper and lower edges.
Slat-back chairs were made of maple and other woods, generally painted black, red, or green. They had rush seats.
No. 5 - BANISTER-BACK CHAIR - circa 1700-1725. Cusped and arched crowning rail on four split banisters; open arms, sausage-turned uprights with side stretchers and bulb-turned frontal stretcher. Maple. Rush seat.
The banister-backed chair evolved from the cane. In the banister-back, split banisters were substituted for cane in the back of the chair and rush (at times splint) was used instead of cane for the seat.
The number of split banisters in the back varied from three to five. These split banisters were half of a usual banister with the flat side facing the front of the chair. Occasionally the turned side faced the front and in this case the chair is referred to as a reversed banisterback.
The split banisters were made by gluing two pieces of wood together with paper or cloth between and then turning the piece in the same manner as a whole banister. After turning, the two parts could be easily separated.
In the early banister-back, the cresting of the cane chair was continued. In later chairs this crest design was considerably simplified until there remained only a shaped decorative line on the upper edge.
Still later, narrow strips of wood, at times reeded, replaced the split banisters and a curved top rail became more common than the cresting. Banister-back chairs were made of maple and other woods and were generally painted black.
WINDSORS - first appeared in Philadelphia shortly after 1725 but rapidly became popular with chair. makers in all the Colonies. (See text for further description of types).
No. 6 - Braced-back Windsor side chairs, Rhode Island.
No. 7 - Maple and hickory seven - spindle fan back chairs.
No. 8 - Hickory and maple Comb-back Windsor chair. Horseshoe spindled arm-chair with tall comb cresting, the saddle seat developing a side bracket with three extra spindles bracing a wide writing arm; on nicely splayed legs with bobbin stretcher.
No. 9 - QUEEN ANNE - circa 1710-1760. Left: Queen Anne shell-carved walnut side chair with Drake feet. Open back with fiddle-scroll uprights curving into a top rail centered with a scallop shell, over a slightly spooned solid vase splat; shield-shaped slip seat, cabriole front legs ending in web feet. Right: Queen Anne walnut side chair. Open slightly spooned back with solid beaker splat. Slip seat with valanced front rail and stretchered cabriole legs with club feet.
Although Queen Anne came to the throne of England in 1702, it was not until several years later that furniture in the so-called Queen Anne style reached the Colonies. However, after its acceptance by the Colonial cabinet-makers and their clients, it continued to be the major fashion until the advent of the Chippendale style. Even after the introduction of the Chippendale style, the Colonial craftsmen did not give up the Queen Anne style immediately The Queen Anne style was a real departure from those that preceded it. Now the predominating lines became curved rather than straight. The top rail became yoke-shaped, and the back splat vase-shaped (fiddle back). For the first time in chairmaking the splat rests upon the seat rail itself, not upon a cross rail above the seat.
The front legs are in the curved form known as cabriole. The front feet are rounded Dutch or club feet, trifid (drake), slipper, claw and-ball.
Although much of this Queen Anne furniture was made in walnut in the Colonies, other woods were used, particularly in New England. Stretchers are often found on the Queen Anne chairs made in New England.
No. 10 - CHIPPENDALE - circa 1755-1785. Chippendale side chair, Philadelphia, circa 1770. Attributed to Benjamin Randolph, the maker of some of the most elaborate and beautiful American Chippendale.This is one of his famous sample chairs, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Illustration, courtesy "Cabinetmakers of America").
No. 11 - CHIPPENDALE, mahogany ladderback - Open flaring back with three pierced and arched rung slats, centered with small carved ornaments resembling coroneted honeysuckle motives; serpentine - fronted seat in black leather, trimmed with brass nails, on chamfered and molded square legs with enclosed stretchers.
In almost all styles of chairs, the distinctive feature which determines the style is the form of the back. In chairs of the Chippendale style, the distinctive feature is the form of the top rail. The back of the chair may be splat of various degrees of intricacy, or ladder-back. The leg may be cabriole with claw-and-ball foot; or chamfered and molded square leg or the heavy, straight, grooved leg known as Marlborough.
Chippendale chairs, especially the most elaborate, are generally of mahogany. Others were constructed of cherry, maple, and other woods.
No. 12 - Transition chair showing features carried over from the Chippendale period and others suggesting the advent of the Hepplewhite style. It is well to remember that no style suddenly appears. At first there are signs showing the trend, then comes the perfected design, and then a period of decadence when the design again shows changes indicating the approach of a new style. Chairs showing such changes are called "transitional."
No. 13 - HEPPLEWHITE - circa 1785-1800. Hepplewhite finely carved mahogany shield back side chair. This chair is representative of one of the highest types of the period because of its successful lines and quality of carving.
George Hepplewhite's widow, Alice, working under the name of "A. Hepplewhite & Co.," published her husband's book, "The Cabinet- Maker and Upholsterer's Guide" in 1788, two years after his death. This Guide showed various designs of chairs (as well as other types of furniture) which have become known as the Hepplewhite style.
Hepplewhite style chairs were made in America from about 1785 until 1800 by the cabinet-makers. As in other chairs, the back is the distinctive feature. They are of several kinds: 1. the shield back; 2. interlaced heart, a variation of the shield back; 3. oval back; 4. hoop back.
The backs of the Hepplewhite chairs, except the hoop, unlike those of the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles, do not connect with the seat rail. They are attached only to an upward extension of the rear legs.
The designs within the backs of the shield back chairs are of two general types; a. splat, not too unlike the splats in Chippendale style chairs; b. a series of three, four, or five uprights, called banisters or bars, which extend from the bottom of the back upward to the top. There are variations from these two general styles.
A plain or molded tapered leg with or without a spade foot is used on the Hepplewhite chair. At times, Hepplewhite style chairs were decorated with carving, painting, or inlay. Mahogany was the wood of choice.
No. 14 - SHERATON - circa 1795-1810. Sheraton carved mahogany side chair with molded back having raised central splat with leaf-collared colonnettes and fantail spandrels centering a matching pierced and drapery-festooned urn with Prince of Wales' plumes; quadrangular reeded and tapered legs, finished with brass toe caps and small wheel casters.
No. 15 - Sheraton chairs of the type made popular by Duncan Phyfe of New York City. Thomas Sheraton's book "The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing-Book" was published in 1791. This introduced to both England and America a new style chair.
Whereas the Hepplewhite chair had a curved back, the Sheraton style chair had a square or rectangular back with its crossbar just above the seat. The back, itself, showed either a central splat or a number of banisters of various sizes and shapes. Legs were tapered or turned and reeded.
Samuel Mcintire of Salem, Mass., and Duncan Phyfe of New York City were famous for their beautiful chairs well as for other items of furniture as well as for other items of furniture in the Sheraton style.
No. 16 - MAPLE FANCY CHAIR - circa 1820. Open back with scrolled crest rail and bowed "feather" splats, wood saddle seat, and "bamboo"-turned splayed legs with matching stretchers.
No. 17 - HITCHCOCK CHAIR - circa 1825-1846. Made in Connecticut by Lambert Hitchcock and partners. Chair backs are of several kinds; the "turtleback," the "pillow-top," a cut-out back slat, a rounded top, a curved back with spindles, and a crest or cut-in oval back. Painted and stencilled.