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( Originally Published 1963 )
Most popular of all styles was the Boston rocker, its vogue extending from about 1825 to 1890. The true Boston rocker had a high, bent-spindle back with a wide headpiece, arms ending in a downcurve to fit the hands, a rolling shaped seat, and turned legs on rockers that projected at the back. Most Boston rockers were painted and had a stenciled decoration of flowers, fruit, or landscape on the headpiece.
Boston rockers were made in many places other than the city of their name. There were many variations too. Certainly the so-called Salem rocker was one, and it's hard at first glance to see any difference between the two. The Salem rocker had a lower seat and a higher back and possibly a narrower crest rail, with its shaping somewhat different from the Boston rocker.
Another variation was almost an exact copy down to the paint and stenciling, except that this chair did not have arms.
Not all rocking chairs were as comfortable as the Boston rocker. Undoubtedly the Pennsylvania Dutch rocker, which had a splat instead of spindles in its back, and downcurved arms, was. This style was painted with typical decoration of the region on headpiece and splat. On the other hand, the slat-back Shaker rocker was far from comfortable. This high, unpainted rocker was a traditional style that is literally almost worth its weight in gold today. Big, slouchy country rockers may not even have had paint, let alone the decoration of Boston rockers, yet they followed the lines and parts almost exactly and are very comfortable.
Country furniture, as a matter of fact, abounded in rockers. There were large ones and small ones, some of the latter with quite low seats. Many of the small rockers were armless but nonetheless comfortable. Some had only one or two horizontal splats, and these might be curved or shaped for comfort. Seats were caned or rushed if not solid wood. A mid-nineteenth-century style had an oval back and round seat frame, usually of maple, enclosing cane back and seat. About 18?0, the back of this style became rectangular with a curved crest rail, and the seat square. Both the oval- and rectangular-backed ones were made in large and small rockers with and without arms.
As distinct a style as the Boston rocker, and appearing about the same time was the Hitchcock chair. This is the most famous and best-known of the painted chairs. It is more than just another chair, however, because it marked the beginning of a drastic change in furniture-making. Hitchcock chairs were made by hand, but were cut, turned, assembled, painted, and decorated in more or less assembly-line fashion at Lambert Hitchcock's factory in Hitchcocksville, Connecticut. When a group was completed, they would be taken out and sold. The little factory also shipped chairs to various parts of the country.
The Hitchcock chair was a side chair with a rectangular back which had one or more horizontal splats and a wide crest rail, legs and stretchers with simple turnings, and a square rush seat. All wood parts were painted a redbrown to simulate rosewood and mahogany, or black. Stencil decoration in gold was applied to the splat and crest rail, and the turnings of legs and stretchers were emphasized with gilt lines. A few chairs with downcurved arms also were made.
All chairs produced in the Hitchcock factory had a stencil across the back stating: "L. Hitchcock, Warranted," or "L. Hitchcock, Hitchcocksville, Ct.," or "Hitchcock, Alford & Co." The factory was in business from about 1826 into the 1840's. Chairs with any of these stamps and particularly with the original stencil decoration still fairly clear are most valuable.
Next in value would be similar chairs made during the same period in other shops. This was such a popular style of chair that there were many imitators, even while Hitchcock's factory was busy. In other places, from New England to New York and Pennsylvania, details of the chair differed. The back and seat were usually rectilinear, as were mahogany side chairs of the same years. Backs often were outcurved as were the backs of Sheraton side chairs. Instead of simple stencil decoration of flower, fruit, and geometric motif, the middle splat might be carved, perhaps with an eagle, and then stenciled with gilt. In short, the term Hitchcock or Hitchcock-type is now applied to almost any light, painted and stenciled chair made between 1825 or 1850 or a few years later.
Painted chairs of all kinds were immensely popular from 1820 into the 1890's, and many that were rated as kitchen chairs 100 and more years ago are given more status nowadays. The painted side chair without arms was a staple all over the country in villages and cities, mansions, farmhouses, and taverns.
One of the most prized of these side chairs is the one known as an arrowback because of the shape of its back splats. Most chairs have three, some have five, splats. The arrow-back was undoubtedly an offshoot of the Windsor chair, although the splats were flat and tapering rather than rounded spindles. Arrow-backs were made in all degrees of refinement, from handsome enough for the parlor to gay ones for the kitchen. However simple the construction, when the arrow-back was painted black and given a stencil decoration across the crest rail and gilded lines to mark the arrow splats and the turnings of the legs and stretchers, it was good-looking enough for any room. When it was painted green and floral decoration added in bright colors, it almost certainly was made in Pennsylvania Dutch country and intended for kitchen use. The back splats varied from flat pieces of wood tapering at either end, to those with an obvious arrow cut into the center section.
Although the arrow-back is easiest to recognize, these painted side chairs were made with an almost infinite variety of backs. Another of the most common types had a wide back splat from which three to five fairly heavy, turned spindles extended down to the seat. Then again the crest rail or headpiece was wide and spindles or narrow splats extended from it to the seat. The arrangement of horizontal and vertical pieces in the back of a chair of this type varied widely.
The seats of these innumerable side chairs were shaped and usually were made of thick wood, sometimes of two or three pieces fastened together. On the whole, the turnings of the legs and stretchers were simple, but the workmanship ranged from fine to coarse, according to the skill of the workman.
One reason for painting the finished chair was that it generally was made of two or three kinds of wood. Pine, whitewood, or maple might be used for the seat, hickory or ash for the splats, maple, birch, or oak for the turned legs and stretchers. Kitchen chairs were painted green, brown, blue, or red. For use elsewhere in the house black paint or a red-brown paint was usual, and these chairs often had stencil decoration in gilt.
Fewer armchairs than side chairs were made. Low-back ones were fairly common after 1840 and not unknown before that. Some people call them firehouse chairs because they were used in firehouses, but they probably were as general in offices and, in lesser number, in homes. The arms and back formed a horseshoe, with a rail added to the center section. The seat was a broad horseshoe of one or several pieces of thick wood. These late-nineteenth-century chairs were usually painted.
They were undoubtedly copied from the early-nineteenth-century "captain's chair," which has been called the "Windsor that went to sea." This was a polished wood chair with the same horseshoe-shaped back and arms, but with more and finer turnings on the spindles. The legs had the distinct rake of a good Windsor chair and, preferably, crossed stretchers. The seat was saddle-shaped and carved from a solid block of wood.
Settees following most of the styles of painted chairs are attractive and good finds. They ranged from love-seat length (about 34 inches) to 6 or 7 feet. Some of them had arrow backs, others had plain or turned spindles. Sometimes the spindles extended from the crest rail to the seat, again only from a horizontal splat under the crest rail. The stretchers were either three or four in number and, like the legs, simply turned. Most of these settees-even the longest-had seats shaped from a single solid piece of wood. Some followed Hitchcock chairs in having rush seats.
A very few of these wood settees are to be found with rockers nowadays. Even more of a find would be a settee with one end fenced off at the front edge of the seat to form a cradle. The idea was that a woman could sit un encumbered and knit or sew while the baby lay safe behind the fenced-in area.., (If you find such a settee with a fence at both ends of the seat, you'll know that the original owner had twins.) A settee of this sort is known as a settee cradle, but separate cradles in various Windsor styles also were made.
All of the settees were painted, and the fancier ones, like fancy chairs, had stencil decoration on the crest rail and the turnings of legs and stretchers marked in gilt, metallic green, or bronze Flowers and fruit were the usual motifs for stencils. In some areas, brighter base paint and decorations were customary.
Much plainer than these attractive settees were the so-called town-meeting or deacon's benches. These also were 4 to 7 feet long, with a curved piece topping the spindles of the arm, and a spindle back beneath a wide rail. Sometimes they were unfinished, occasionally painted. Deacon's benches are considered New England in origin, but are found elsewhere in the country as far west as Ohio and Illinois.