Old Chairs And Sofas
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE is a charm about old furnishings that cannot fail to appeal to all lovers of the quaint and interesting, and a study of their characteristics is a diversion well worth while. Old-time cabinet-makers understood the value of bestowing upon details the same consideration they gave main features, and, as a result, their work shows that harmony that gives to. it an interest not found in later types, and which, more than anything else, has helped bring it into prominence in the equipment of modern dwellings. While this is true of all colonial fittings, it is especially true of the chair, for this article more than any other depicts the gradual betterment of rudely formed beginnings culminating in the work of the three master craftsmen, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton, whose designs, even today, serve as an inspiration to high-class cabinet-makers.
In the early days of the colonies, chairs were scarce appurtenances, and the few used, generally not more than three in number in each home, and known as forms, were very rudely constructed, being in reality stools or benches, fashioned after the English designs then in vogue. Later, these developed into the high-backed settles, which are so much used in a modified form to-day.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, chairs had come into more common usage, the type then in favor being strong and solid of frame, with seat and back covered with durable leather or Turkey work. Generally, the legs and stretches were plain, though sometimes the legs and back posts were turned.
Specimens of the turned variety, which are the first seats that really could be termed chairs, are very scarce to-day, the best examples being found at Pilgrim Hall at Plymouth, in the home of Hon. John D.. Long at Hingham, Massachusetts, in the Heard house at Ipswich, Massachusetts, and in the Waters collection at Salem, where one specimen shows a covering which is a reproduction, having been fashioned to exactly match in design and texture the original one it replaced when that one wore out.
The year 1700 marked the introduction of the slat-back chair, which enjoyed a long period of popularity. The number of slats at the back, characteristic of this type, varied with the time of making, the first specimens showing but two, while later types showed five. These chairs were solid and strong of frame, and in Pennsylvania were made curved to fit the back, affording a comfortable support. They included, in addition to ordinary chairs, armchairs, and it was to an armchair of this make that Benjamin Franklin affixed rockers, thus inventing the first American rocking-chair and inaugurating a fashion that has never waned in popularity. This first rocking-chair and its contemporaries, which did not antedate the Revolutionary War by any great number of years, had rockers that projected as far in the front as they did at the back, — a peculiarity that makes them easily recognizable today. Later, this objection was remedied, and the present type of rocking-chair came into fashion.
From 1710 to 1720 the banister-back chair was much used, though it never enjoyed equal favor with the slat-back type. Instead of the horizontal slats typical of the earlier model, the banister-back chair showed upright spindles, usually four in number, and generally flat, though sometimes rounded at the back. Its seat, like that of the slat back, was of rush, and it was fashioned of either hard or soft wood, and almost always painted black. One interesting example of this make is found at "Highfield," the ancestral home of the Adams family at Byfield, Massachusetts, having been brought here in the early days of the dwelling's erection by Anne Sewall Longfellow, who came here the bride of Abraham Adams, and who brought the chair herself from her old home across the fields that divided the two estates, so that no harm would befall it. It has been carefully treasured by her descendants, and to-day occupies its original resting place by the side of the wide old fireplace, where, on the night before the Battle of Bunker Hill, leaden bullets used in that historic encounter were cast.
Slightly later than these types came the Dutch chair, sometimes severely plain in design, and again pierced and curiously carved. One excel-lent example of this model, formerly owned by Moll Pitcher, the famous soothsayer of Lynn, who told one's fate by the teacup at her home at High Rock, is now preserved in a Chestnut Street dwelling at Salem, and shows the straight legs and straight foot of the best class of the Dutch type, and the usual rush seat. Most Dutch specimens found their way to Dutch settlements, though many were brought to New England direct from northern Holland.
Easy chairs which came into style not long after the slat-back model, proved the most comfortable type yet invented, and served as a welcome variation from the straight and stiff-backed chairs up to that time in favor. They were stuffed at back and sides, and covered with patch or material of like nature. Owing to the amount of material which was used in stuffing and covering them, their cost was considerable, varying from one to five pounds, according to the style and quality of covering used.
The most common and popular chairs of the eighteenth century were those of the Windsor type, manufactured in this country as early as 1725, and deriving their name from the town in England where they originated. The story of their origin is most interesting. The reigning George of that day, the second of his name, saw in a shepherd's cottage a chair which he greatly admired. He bought it to use as a model, thus setting the stamp of kingly approval on this type, and bringing it into immediate favor. It is not related what color he had his chairs painted, but the general coloring employed was either black or dark green, though some chairs were not painted at all. The finish of the back of this type was varied to suit different fancies, some few having a comblike extension on top as a head-rest, while others had a curved or bowlike horizontal top piece, like a fan. These types originated the names comb back and fan back, by which Windsor chairs of these types are known. American manufacturers in general copied the English styles, though they also developed several variations. Many American Windsors, particularly the fan backs, are equipped with rockers, the date of their manufacture coming after the Revolution.
But Windsor chairs, popular and fine as they were, by no means were the best type developed in this century, for this period marked a great change in the history of cabinet-making, resulting in the development of wonderful designs, exquisitely blended and finished. First on the list of the new master craftsmen was Chippendale, who in 1753 issued his first book of designs, and whose models were given first consideration for more than thirty years. Then, in 1789, followed Hepplewhite, and two years later came Sheraton, while lesser lights, such as the Brothers Adam, Manwaring, Ince, and Mayhew, all contributed their share to the betterment of chair manufacture.
The chair seems to have been Chippendale's favorite piece of furniture, and in its design he has blended the finest points in French, Dutch, and Chinese patterns. His first chairs showed Dutch influence, and for these he used the cabriole leg, greatly improving its curving, with the Dutch or ball-and-claw foot, the latter more frequently than the former. His chair seats were broad and flat, and in his backs he disregarded the usual Dutch types, his uprights generally joining the top at an angle, and his top piece being usually bow-shaped. His backs were a little broader at the top than at the bottom, and he used the central splat carved and pierced.
Next, his chairs showed Louis the Fifteenth characteristics, notably in the splats, which were often handsomely carved and pierced. During this time he produced his ribbon-back chair, though his best chairs, showing this influence, were upholstered armchairs, with legs terminating in French scroll feet. Later, he introduced in his chairs Gothic and Chinese features, even though the backs still preserved the Dutch and French features. Finally, the details of the several features became much mixed, and at length resulted in a predominance of Chinese characteristics. Most of his chairs were done in mahogany, which was a favorite wood in his day, and his skill is especially displayed in the wonderful carving which is typical of much of his work. Not only are his chairs excellently proportioned, but they are so substantially built that even to-day, after more than one hundred and fifty years' usage, they show no sign of wear.
Not a little of his work found its way to New England homes, many fine specimens at one time gracing the dwelling of "Lord" Timothy Dexter, Newburyport's eccentric character, who made his fortune by selling warming pans to the heathen, who used the covers for scooping sugar, and the pans for sirup.- His home was filled with quantities of beautiful furniture, including many excellent Chippendale chairs.
Hepplewhite, the second of the master cabinet-makers, succeeded Chippendale in popular favor in 1789, and his furniture, while much lighter and consequently less durable than that of his predecessor, showed a beauty of form and a wealth of ornamentation that rendered it most artistic.
He employed not only caging of the most delicate and exquisite nature, but inlay and painting as well, introducing japanning after the style of Vernis-Martin work.
The shield or heart-shaped back is one of the characteristics of his chairs, though he also used oval backs and sometimes even square backs. They are all very graceful and delicate, with carved drapery, and many of the shield-shaped type show for decoration the three feathers of the Prince of Wales, Hepplewhite being one of the Prince's party when sentiment ran strong during the illness of George III. Other decorations employed by him were the urn, husk and ear of wheat. The wood he generally used was mahogany, though occasionally he made use of painted satinwood.
Following close upon the heels of Hepplewhite came Sheraton, the last of the three great masters in cabinet-work. His designs were delicate, but strong, and generally his chair backs were firmer than those of Hepplewhite. When he had exhausted other forms of decoration, he indulged his fancy for brilliant coloring, mixing it with both inlay and carving. Later he embellished his work with the white and gold of the French style, finally employing features of the Napoleonic period, such as brass mounts and brass inlay. His last seats show the influence of the Empire type, which came into vogue in the early days of the nineteenth century, and the curved piece which he brought in about 1800 served as a model for nearly a century, though it was not adorned with the brass mounts that he had intended.
His greatest glory as a constructor lies in his skillful workmanship and his excellent choice of woods, — satinwood, tulipwood, rosewood, apple-wood, and occasionally mahogany, being his selection ; and as a decorator in the color and arrangement of his marquetry, as well as in the fact that he never allowed consideration of ornament to affect his work as a whole.
Among the chairs he fashioned was one that has come to be known in this country as. the Martha Washington chair, from the fact that a specimen of this type was owned at Mount Vernon. Several excellent examples of his chairs are found at "Hey Bonnie Hall," in Bristol, Rhode Island, one of them being the chair in which John Adams is said to have died.
Chairs of all types are found in any number of old-time homes, those in Salem being as representative as any, for to this old seaport more than to any other, in proportion, rare furnishings were brought. Many of the pieces are of historic interest, such as the old-time chair of Flemish make, brought over in the ship Angel Gabriel, which was wrecked off the coast of Maine ; much of its cargo was recovered, including this old chair, which was later brought to Salem in another ship. Another fine old specimen is the armchair, for many years the prized possession of Hawthorne, and an heirloom in his family, which he presented to the Waters family, in whose possession it now is.
With the passing of Sheraton, Empire models held full sway, and, while some of these were comfortable and graceful, the majority were massive, stiff, and extreme in style. Early nineteenth-century chairs manufactured in America are of this type, some of them of rosewood, some of mahogany, and some painted, while many are of mahogany veneer.
But while chairs were the most common seats in the colonies, they were not the only ones, for old-time homes were supplied with sofas as well. To be sure, these did not come into use until many years after the advent of the chair, the time of their appearance being about the year 1760; the majority shown are the work of the master cabinet-makers. Sheraton models are those most commonly found here, though the earliest specimens are of Chippendale manufacture, excellent examples of his work being still found, many of them characterized by Louis XV features. A special design of Chippendale's much in favor was "The Darby and Joan" sofa, in reality a double seat, which model, as well as many others that became very popular, was never shown in his catalogue.
Sheraton sofas came in vogue about 1800, their graceful designs and handsome carving making them at once favorites. Many of these showed eight legs, though later, when his designs became heavier and more elaborate, only four legs were used. The coverings of these later specimens were generally haircloth, fastened with brass nails.
The Brothers Adam also made some of the sofas found here, their designs showing a peculiar slanting or curved leg which is known as the Adam leg, and which is also characteristic of some of Sheraton's pieces.
About 1820 what was known as the Cornucopia sofa came into style, the carving at the arms showing horns of plenty, which design was often repeated in the top-rail, while the hollow made by the curve of the decoration was filled with hard, round pillows, known as "squabs." Contemporaneous with this type was the Empire sofa, with winged legs and claw feet, often covered with haircloth. One example of this model, exquisitely carved, is in the possession of a Salem family.
But whatever their type or characteristic, the old-time chair and sofa are distinctive, and it is a tribute to their worth that in the equipment of modern homes designers are reverting to them for inspiration. Likewise it is with relief that we welcome them, after so long harboring the ugly monstrosities that followed in favor the Empire types.