Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Antiques And Arts News Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Chairs



There were few chairs in New England in the early days. People sat on stools, on forms or benches, and on chests. They must have been uncomfortable, but the scarcity of chairs was not because of any desire to mortify the flesh, nor to poverty, nor to difficulties of transportation. It was because chairs were not much in favor at the time. Even in England they were seldom seen in ordinary homes.

The chairs which the colonists did have were ponderous affairs and, except for the support they gave the sitter's back, did little to ease the seating situation until well along in the seventeenth century. Colonial furniture, indeed, gives one the impression that the early settlers were literally a strait-laced people.

The three types of chairs most in use during the Pilgrim century were the turned chair, the wainscot chair, and the Cromwellian chair, with a leather or textile seat and back. Good specimens of the turned type are the high-backed chairs of Governor Carver and Elder Brewster in Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth. Large, massive, and masculine, they are composed entirely of turnings fitted together. The Carver chair is the simpler one of the two, the Brewster chair having turned spindles not only in the back, but also under the arms and between the stretchers at the front and sides below the seat. Although Governor Carver and Elder Brewster doubtless looked quite dignified sitting in their great chairs, they could have taken little comfort in them.

Another example of the turned type is the president's chair at Harvard. This famous triangular seat is a fussy piece of furniture loaded with such a profusion of turnery as to suggest the days of Victoria rather than those of Charles. Oliver Wendell Holmes describes it in a ballad called "Parson Turell's Legacy; or, the President's Old Arm-Chair," which he inserted in The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.

Funny old chair with seat like wedge,
Sharp behind and broad front edge,
One of the oddest human things,
Turned all over with knobs and rings,
But heavy, and wide, and deep, and grand,
Fit for the worthies of the land.

Different woods were used in the early turned chairs. Ash was always employed for the substantial front and back posts, hickory as a rule for the arms and stretchers. The spindles in the back were often of birch. The seats were generally made of rushes, though the inner fibrous bark of the elm and the bass or linden tree was also sometimes used for this purpose.

The wainscot chairs were invariably made of oak and were extremely heavy, as they had solid wooden seats and backs and were sometimes boxed in beneath the seat. The backs were frequently paneled and carved. Occasionally the paneling matched that of the room in which the chair stood, but oftener it was more like that seen on cupboards and chests. Perhaps the best known of these chairs is the one in Pilgrim Hall named for its owner, "The Winslow Chair."

Carved wainscot chairs were costly and were to be found only in the homes of people of means and standing in the community. Sometimes the date appears in the decoration on the back. The story is told of an antique dealer who had the date 1635 and a coat-ofarms carved on the back of a genuine old wainscot chair, in an attempt to enhance its value. Unfortunately for him, the fraud was detected because the coat-ofarms he chose to have reproduced had not been granted until nearly a century after the date on the chair.

The high-backed settles, which, as everybody knows, were designed to keep draughts off people while they sat beside the fire in winter, likewise had paneled backs. Some were provided with a small bracket shelf, affixed to the middle of the back, which was just large enough to hold a candlestick at a convenient height for reading.

Probably the most comfortable of the seventeenthcentury chairs was the low-backed Cromwellian with its leather or Turkey-work seat and back. Wealthy families frequently had sets of these chairs. As in the case of the turned and the wainscot chair, some were imported from England, others made in America. Before the end of the century most of the population of New England were sitting on chairs, though not wholly without discomfort.

It was not until the early decades of the eighteenth century that the easy chair made its appearance. This was the upholstered wing chair, which was first used in bedrooms. It was sometimes covered with the same material as the bed and window curtains. Salt marsh hay was used in stuffing many of these chairs. This was such a comfortable chair that it soon emerged from the seclusion of the bedchamber and became part of the livingroom furniture. It has numerous descendants today, most of them showing some family resemblance.

Other chairs common in colonial New England were the chair with the cane seat and back, the bandy-leg or bow-leg chair, the banister-back and the roundabout, the slat-back and the Windsor. Most of these were copies of English types, or were suggested by them. The bandy-leg chair seems to have been Dutch. It frequently had the claw-and-ball foot, sometimes described in probate inventories as "eaglesfoot" and "crowfoot." Occasionally the shell on the knee is also mentioned in the old records. Dr. Lyon says the claw-and-ball foot originated in China, where for centuries the motif of the dragon grasping a pearl was used.

The banister-back chair is found with and without arms. Tall and generally narrow, it took its name from the vertical spindles, usually four in number, set into the frame of the back. These were turned like stair banisters, save for the flat front side, against which the sitter leaned. The turned front legs, with Flemish or Spanish feet, were joined by a bulbous stretcher. The turned back posts were topped with knobs, and the back was crested in a variety of pleasing ways. Although provided with a rush or splint seat, the banister-back was never remarkable for comfort. It was a rather sophisticated chair, and though quantities were made of maple, ash, and pine, and it was seen everywhere, the bandy-leg was largely a parlor piece.

The roundabout chair with the arms and legs forming a continuous curve of the same height, except perhaps for a top piece on the back, came in during the first part of the eighteenth century. The better ones were made of walnut, mahogany, and cherry. It was a comfortable species of armchair, and the idea of the curving back and arms was embodied later in the so-called barroom or captain's chair.

An odd piece of dual-purpose furniture was the chair table, which generally had a round top, but sometimes a square or rectangular one. When this piece of furniture was used as a table, the top rested on the arms of the chair, but when the top was tilted up into a vertical position-it turned on wooden pins at the junction of the arms with the back posts-it formed the back of a chair, which usually stood against the wall. This curious form of furniture was first used in New England about the middle of the seventeenth century and is still made. The early ones were generally of oak and pine and had no drawer under the seat, as have the later chair tables.

The familiar slat-back, which had anywhere from two to six horizontal back pieces curved to fit the sitter's back, and the no less well-known Windsor, which came in various styles, were enormously popular for many years. But the two most characteristic New England chairs were the Hitchcock chair and the Boston rocker. They were the bestsellers of the furniture trade of yesteryear.

The village of Hitchcocksville, now Riverton, where Lambert Hitchcock made the chairs which have immortalized his name, is on the West Branch of the Farmington River in the township of Barkhamsted, Connecticut. The village lies along both sides of the river amid typical New England surroundings of hills, woods, and rocks. At one end of the bridge which spans the river stands the old brick chair factory with its square cupola topped by a weathervane, while facing it at the other end is the still older Riverton Inn with two porches, one above the other, extending across its front. The inn, known in Hitchcock's time as "The Ives Tavern," dates from i8oo, the chair works from 1826. "Rest for the Weary" could appropriately have been used by the proprietors of both places for a trade slogan.

Lambert Hitchcock was a Connecticut Yankee, but not a native of Barkhamsted. Descended from pioneer New Haven stock, he was born in Cheshire, June 28, 1795. When he was six, his father, who had fought in the Revolution, met a tragic fate at sea. In 18 18, at the age of twenty-three, Lambert moved to Barkhamsted, where he began to manufacture chair parts. Among the considerations which may have led the youthful cabinetmaker to choose such a small, out-of-the-way place for his factory were ample local supplies of wood suitable for chairmaking and the water power of the Farmington River.

The business prospered from the first. New England at that time manufactured largely for the Southern market, and Lambert Hitchcock shipped thousands of chair parts to seaboard cities and other business centers in the South, where the chairs were assembled. Many were also sold to the Yankee peddlers who infested the region. They bought the parts and put them together themselves as they needed them. Shipment from Connecticut to the South was by coastwise sailing vessels, chiefly through the river port of Hartford, twenty-six miles from Hitchcocksville.

At the time Hitchcock launched his business, the American Windsor chair, which originated in Philadelphia and enjoyed a long run, was being pushed aside by newer styles coming into the market. So was the old slat-back, or ladder-back, chair. The Hitchcock soon superseded all others in popularity. It remained the favorite for many years, until at length it was, in turn, displaced, by the Empire style.

Whether or not Lambert Hitchcock originated the chair which bears his name is not definitely known, but he may very well have done so, or at least have been responsible for certain of its distinctive features. In any case, there is no question that his chairs are among the finest of the so-called Hitchcock type, and his designs are followed today by those who still make them.

Although engaged in what was called the "fancy chair" trade, Hitchcock's productions were actually quite simple. The typical Hitchcock chair is nothing but a straight chair with a rush or cane seat, or even a wooden one, broader at the front than at the back, and with the front edge rounded for the comfort of the sitter. The front legs and the front rung are turned, while the others are plain. The back legs extend above the seat to form the uprights of the back, which at the top are flat and curve backward slightly. They are joined by a turned top rail, usually in what is called the "pillowtop" design, which seems to have been derived from Sheraton, or by a flat, arched toppiece similar to that seen on Boston rockers. A wide, curved, horizontal back slat, often with a narrow slat below it, is another feature. The back slat takes many different forms, from the simple straight one to the "turtle" back, the "button" back, the "crown" back, and other designs. It is on this back slat that the principal decoration of the chair is centered-the stenciled horns of plenty, baskets of fruit or flowers, clusters of grapes, and other conventional designs, including a fountain with birds refreshing themselves.

These chairs were not made for any luxury market, but were cheap furniture produced in quantity for the ordinary American household in town and country. Yet they were strongly built of the best wood procurable, usually birch or maple. They were light and sturdy and that they were made to last is shown by the number which have survived after years of service. In one Connecticut farmhouse attic with which I am familiar are eight or ten of these chairs, most of them differing from each other in some detail of decoration or design. They are held in reserve and brought down when the family returns in force for a holiday gathering. Four or five generations of the family have used them.

When Lambert Hitchcock settled in Barkhamsted, few people were living in the northwest corner of the town where he established his business. About a mile downstream were the cabins of an Indian village, occupied by a remnant of the Narragansett tribe, a score or two in number, who had purchased a couple of hundred acres in the valley. The opening of the chair factory soon attracted settlers and by 1821 the thriving community which sprang up around it was known as "Hitchcocksville," a name it retained until 1866, when "Hitchcocksville" was changed to "Riverton" because it was frequently confused with Hotchkissville.

The making and selling of chair parts was continued for only the first few years, and was then abandoned in favor of manufacturing finished chairs. This gave employment to whole families. The men did the woodwork, operating the saws, lathes, and finishing machines, while the women and children painted and decorated the chairs. The children put on the primary coat of Venetian red, which on old chairs can sometimes be seen showing through the black coat the women painted over it. Then came the stenciling, which was also done by the women. Using paper stencils, they laid in the groundwork by dipping their fingers in oil, then in gold, bronze, or silver powder, and applying it to the stencil. The spots of color which pricked out the design were added afterward with a brush, as were also the touches of gold on the turnings of the legs and the uprights of the back. Mabel Roberts Moore, whose monograph on Hitchcock chairs is the best thing on the subject, says the fingers of the women who did the stenciling became as hard as boards.

There is no doubt that the attractive decoration helped greatly to promote the sale of the Hitchcock line of chairs. Their popularity, indeed, increased at such a rate that in 1826, less than ten years after he entered the chair business, Lambert Hitchcock was able to build the brick factory building which still stands on the bank of the Farmington River. In this plant, employing upwards of a hundred hands, he turned out fifteen thousand chairs annually. These included, in addition to many different styles of his straight chair, a number of children's chairs and a variety of rockers.

The rocking chair is an American invention, but who the inventor was nobody knows. There is a legend that Benjamin Franklin was the first to put rockers on a chair. A visitor to Philadelphia after the Revolution reported seeing an old slat-back chair mounted on rockers in his home. But long before that they were adding rockers to chairs in the Connecticut Valley, and the evidence points to New England as the place of origin. Walter A. Dyer thinks the first one came from Connecticut. In any case, the Boston rocker was the most popular of them all, and Lambert Hitchcock is believed to have been the first to manufacture this chair in quantity.

The rocking chair is in exile today, but forty years ago it was to be seen in every home. Whether the idea for the chair was derived from the cradle or not, millions of Americans now living can remember being lulled to sleep in infancy in the old family rocking chair. As one who was brought up in that period, I was familiar with rockers. I recall one that creaked dreadfully when in motion. Another that was my grandmother's had very short rockers extending only a few inches beyond the legs, which made it an excitingly tippy chair, and there was one with long sweeping rockers over which I tumbled and beneath which I had my toes pinched more than once. Still another, a triumph of the eighties or nineties, was an upholstered patented chair equipped with springs and a stationary wooden base on which the rockers rested.

People then sat and rocked not only inside their homes, but also outside on their porches in specially made outdoor rockers. In late spring a familiar sight on the streets of New England cities were the long open wagons of the furniture peddlers, loaded with veranda chairs and brightly painted garden benches, many of the pieces hanging from the framework that was erected on the vehicles. These peddlers did business in the residential streets.

The so-called Cape Cod rocker was a long bench with a demountable rail across part of the front to keep an infant lying on the seat from rolling off. The Cape Cod served the dual purpose of a rocker and a cradle. A mother could sit and knit or otherwise occupy herself and at the same time rock herself and her baby. Hitchcock sold his Cape Cod rockers, which were painted and decorated like his other chairs, for forty cents a foot, a six-footer selling for only two dollars and forty cents. All of these rockers he continued to produce as long as he was in the furniture business. There is a tradition that before Lambert Hitchcock made rocking chairs it was only possible to buy the rockers separately, to put on already existing chairs.

The Boston rocker, which Wallace Nutting thinks was the most popular chair ever made in America, was produced at the Hitchcocksville factory beginning in the eighteen-twenties, when it first appeared. Lambert Hitchcock had previously experimented with rocking chairs. He had put rockers on a high-backed version of his own chair, to which he added arms. This had the flat seat and the turnings and decorations of the straight Hitchcock, but it was an ungainly-looking thing, and the rarity of the chair today is an indication that not many were made. Turning to the Boston rocker, he began to make not only the true type of this chair, but also the little Boston without arms, and a child's Boston.

Who made the first Boston rocker is not known. It seems to have just suddenly appeared about the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. It promptly swept the country and marked the beginning of the rocking-chair era. It was an altered form of the Windsor chair, but whereas the Windsor was usually painted green, the Boston was generally black with stenciling on the wide top rail. The seat, which curved up in the back and down in front, was as a rule made of several pieces of pine. Ash, hickory, maple, or oak was used for the legs and spindles. There was nothing beautiful about the chair, but it was extremely comfortable, and its popularity helped to bring prosperity to Lambert Hitchcock.

But it was not all fair sailing for this enterprising Connecticut Yankee. He sold his chairs for a dollar and a half apiece, but he had great difficulty collecting the money owed him. Competitors copied his line and undersold him. In the summer of 1829, following repeated losses and misfortunes, he found himself unable to meet his obligations, amounting to over twenty thousand dollars, and was compelled to make an assignment for the benefit of his creditors. Among his assets, he listed fifteen hundred chairs at the factory in Hitchcocksville, another fifteen hundred in Hartford, five hundred in New Haven, and many more in various markets in different parts of the country. He also had quantities of stock, machinery, and tools for the manufacture of chairs, including lumber, paints, oil, cane, and rushes. Mention of material in the hands of the warden of the state's prison at Wethersfield shows that he used some convict labor, probably for making the rush and cane seats. It also appeared that Hitchcock was a partner in a general store which had recently burned. His personal library, which was sold for the benefit of the creditors, included a number of classics.

The four trustees to whom Hitchcock assigned his property took over the business, but he ran it as their agent and in three years succeeded in working his way out of his financial difficulties. In November, 1832, he announced in the Hartford Courant that he had resumed the business on his own account and responsibility, adding that he had on hand "a large and elegant assortment of chairs, made after the latest fashions, and finished in the best manner."

Across the back strip of the seat on all his chairs Hitchcock had his name and guarantee stenciled in gold, L. HITCHCOCK, HITCHCOCKSVILLE, CONNECTICUT. WARRANTED. This meant that the chair was well and honestly made of carefully selected materials. The stencil was changed in 1832, when Hitchcock took the superintendent of his plant, Arba Alford, Junior, into partnership, so that it read, HITCxcocK, ALFORD & Co. WARRANTED.

Two years earlier Hitchcock, despite the financial crisis through which he was passing, had married Eunice Alford, the sister of the man who became his partner. With the return of prosperity, the two brothers-in-law built a spacious double house across the way from the chair factory. The old brick place, with its solid wooden pillars, is still standing and is owned by a descendant of Arba Alford.

The new partnership worked well. Alford had charge of the factory, while Hitchcock traveled far and wide selling the output. That the latter was a good salesman and covered an extensive territory is plain from the wide distribution the chairs received. They turn up everywhere. Hitchcock journeyed by land and sea, afoot and on horseback, in stagecoaches, canalboats, and sailing vessels. To be within easier reach of the centers of trade, he and his wife moved to Hartford in 1834, and that same year he was elected to represent Barkhamsted in the Connecticut Legislature. In 184o and 1841 he served as State senator. While on one of his selling trips in December, 1841, he tarried a few days in Washington, visiting the United States Senate and calling at the White House, where he met the President and Mrs. Tyler.

Soon after this the Hitchcock and Alford partnership was dissolved and Hitchcock moved to Unionville, where he carried on the chair business by himself, making the same old line, which now bore the mark LAMBERT HITCHCOCK, UNIONVILLE, CONNECTICUT.

In 1835 Eunice Hitchcock had died at the age of thirty, and the following year Lambert Hitchcock married Mary Preston at Cazenovia, New York, by whom he had three sons and a daughter. Then in I852 he died. At his request his ex-partner, Arba Alford, was made executor of his estate. Although Lambert Hitchcock has a place in YVebster's Dictionary, he is not included in the Dictionary of American Biography. No picture of the Yankee chairmaker seems to have survived.

Arba Alford, with his brother Alfred as partner, continued to make chairs at Hitchcocksville under the firm name of Alford & Company, until the Civil War pretty much ruined the business. The factory was sold during the war to Leroy and Delos Stephens, who manufactured pocket rulers there until about the turn of the century. For a while the plant was used as a rubber works for the manufacture of sundries for the drug trade. Then after a period of vacancy the historic factory was reopened a year or two ago by John T. Kenney and Richard Coombs, for the production of Hitchcock chairs true in every detail to the famous originals of more than a century ago, even to the stencil L. HITCHCOCK, HITCHCOCKSVILLE, CONN. WARRANTED.