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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Country Furniture - Part 2

[Country Furniture - Part 1]  [Country Furniture - Part 2]  [Country Furniture - Part 3]  [Country Furniture - Part 4] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

The tavern table had plain or turned legs braced by stretchers. Tops were rectangular, round, or occasionally oval, and ranged from about 30 inches in length or diameter to 4 or 5 feet. The smallest ones were really goodsized stools or benches. Once in a while, a tavern table with one drop leaf or a drawer is discovered. An interesting variation was the round table on three legs braced with stretchers forming a triangle, but this again is a very old style, little made during the 1800's.

A cross between the tavern table and the gateleg table was the butterfly table. This small type with drop leaves was strictly American and took its name from the shape of the swinging brackets or supports for the drop leaves. The brackets extended from the top to the stretchers.

Tavern and butterfly tables were made of all kinds of wood. They are rated not only according to their state of preservation but also by their proportions, the quality of the turnings on legs and stretchers, and the rake of the legs. Tavern tables, incidentally, not only are reproduced but also are faked cleverly by putting together the base of an antique tavern table and the top of a later drop-leaf.

Plain, rather angular legs and feet, by no means as graceful as on cabinetmakers' examples, distinguished country-made tripod tables. A Shaker eandlestand, for example, had a plain, round pedestal and three canted legs under an ungraceful rectangular top. The height of simplicity was the crossbase candlestand with pieces of thick wood forming an X base into which the pedestal was secured. Practicality and ingenuity, so typical of the Shakers, were shown in a worktable built for use by two persons. Under the rectangular top were two drawers, one on either side of the tripod support.

Butterfly tables were made first in New England about 1700. So were Windsor chairs. They became the chair of the eighteenth century and were made in more variations than any other style of chair except the rocker. Prior to this, both side chairs and armchairs had either banister backs (vertical splats with a carved crest rail) or slat backs (simple but shaped horizontal splats). The uprights of both banister-backs and slat-backs usually were topped with finials.

Slat-back chairs continued to be a popular country style almost throughout the nineteenth century. Made mostly with light-colored native woods and often combining two different kinds, these country slat-backs were a very different chair from the elegantly carved ribbon-backs made in cities. The height of the seat and the height of the back varied, but almost always the uprights had simple finials. The slats varied not only in number but also in width and shaping. Seats were rush or woven splint. Slat-backs and particularly the high ladder-backs are not the most comfortable chairs to sit in.

Like slat-backs, Windsor chairs were made all over the country. They still are, although in fewer variations than during the 1700's and 1800's. The best examples of antique Windsors were polished, but many good ones were painted, usually black or green.

This all-wood chair originated in England, but when made in this country, became quite different-looking. The outstanding characteristic of the American Windsor chair was the spindles that form the back and arms and gave rise to the term "stick" construction. In England, this style of chair had a carved or shaped splat and hence fewer spindles, various styles of legs including the cabriole, and thinner seats. In America, Windsor chairs had shaped seats made of a thick solid piece of wood, turned legs with a decided rake, and two, three, or four turned stretchers.

Turnings of legs and stretchers varied from simple cylinder to vase and ring. Certain individualities of turning enable experts to place a chair as having been made in a specific region such as New England, New York, or Pennsylvania. The majority of Windsors had spindles that tapered at either end. However, in the early 1800's, a change came about in the tapering and turning of cylinders in the manner of bamboo. Although comparatively few Windsor chairs, in view of the great number made, had bamboo turnings, this style cannot be pinpointed to any one locality.

Bamboo turning was used chiefly for chairs and settees with a double crest rail. Bamboo spindles were fitted into the lower part of the back, and thinner, plain round spindles between the double rail. Legs and stretchers, much thicker than the spindles, also were bamboo turned. This chair with its rectangular back showed the influence of Sheraton. In New England, it is often referred to as a Broken Chicken Coop chair.

Before this unusual type, Windsor side chairs and armchairs had been made in many shapes. The names were derived from the shape of the back.

Bow-back, hoop-back, fan-back, archback, loop-back, and rod-back were the chief variations. Bow-back and arch-back types often had two extra spindles to brace the back from crest to seat. The fan-back had its top rail brought out into ears, as did elegant Chippendale chairs.

Comb-back Windsors were chiefly armchairs and rockers. The "comb" was added to the low back to provide a headrest and hence more comfort. Several types, including bow-back and arch-back, commonly had combs added. Combs are not always in good proportion to the back or to the chair as a whole.

Rocking chairs were latecomers among the Windsor types. It is obvious that rockers were added to some armchairs instead of being part of the original construction. Any number of Windsor forms were made as rockers.

Some armchairs had a flat table or writing box attached to the right arm. So popular was the stick construction of Windsors that it was used for high chairs for babies, small chairs for children, cradles, love seats, and settees. The latter, whether low-back, bowback, comb-back, or double-rail, are graceful furniture. The double-rail settee had rectangular arms, also with double rails. The number of legs depended on the length of the setteea 6- to 7-foot one had eight legs. Settees, like all good Windsor chairs, had a shaped seat.

The number of spindles that make the back of a side chair or armchair is one indication of the quality, though not the antiquity, of a Windsor chair. Other points contributing to the quality are the shaping of the seat, the turning of the legs, stretchers, and spindles, and the rake of the legs. The sharper the rake, the finer the chair. Proportion and scale also must be considered. On a really old Windsor, several spindles may be loose or broken off at the seat (spindles were socketed in place). These can be replaced easily, but the value of the piece is reduced in proportion to the number of broken ones.

Not only many Windsors but also many slat- and banister-back chairs had rockers added later. True rockers also were made during the 1700's, but it was about 1810 before rockers achieved their immense popularity in this country. The majority of the rockers that are found nowadays were made between about 1830 and 1890.

The legends that have sprung up about rockers are not true, for the most part. For generations, many people have believed that the rocker was an American origination, that Benjamin Franklin was the first person to put rockers on a chair, or that rocking chairs came from Boston. Putting rockers on a chair, admittedly, is the sort of thing Benjamin Franklin might have thought of doing. However, according to the Chester County Historical Society, the first record of a rocking chair in this country is a sale made in 1766 in Middletown, Pennsylvania. This was a true rocking chair, not an old side chair or armchair with rockers added.

Rocking chairs always have been more popular in America than anywhere else, yet the earliest-known rocker was not American but English and was unearthed in London in 1948. This is a seventeenth-century rocker in the older Tudor style.

Rockers, converted from existing chairs and brand-new, were fairly well established here by 1810. The transformation to a rocking chair is easily spotted, for the wood of the rockers is usually different from that of the rest of the chair. Furthermore, the legs were usually shortened in order to add rockers, and this brought the rungs too low. These rockers often looked awkward although they work perfectly well.

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