Monday, June 3, 2013

The First Lawn Chair

QUESTION: We’ve had a Windsor chair in our family as far back as I can remember. I believe it belonged to my great-great grandmother. Today, I use it as a chair at my computer desk. What can you tell me about this chair?

ANSWER: You have a standard bow-back Windsor chair, the kind found in just about every upper class household in Colonial America. While most people consider them delicate antiques, they’re quite sturdy and have many uses.

Today, the ubiquitous white modeled plastic patio chair appears on decks and patios throughout the world. It’s a serviceable chair, easily stacked and stored. But this isn’t the first chair of its kind. In fact, the lowly Windsor chair holds that honor.

One of the most graceful and usable of all traditional chairs, the Windsor is also the most successful piece of furniture in American history. Its origins, however, are English, dating back to the turned and joined stools of 16th-Century England. The name probably derives from Windsor, where a prolific chairmaker  produced and sold the chairs in the 18th Century. He sent them down the Thames River to London where people referred to them as coming "up from Windsor."

Wheelwrights rather than cabinetmakers made Windsor chairs in England. They remained farmhouse or tavern furniture for a long time. But here in America, homeowners embraced the Windsor as a sort of all-around chair. They could be stored in a hallway and brought into any room that needed more seating when guests arrived. They could be easily carried. And they could be brought outdoors to provide seating on the lawn on hot summer days. Even the most prominent members of Colonial communities used them. George Washington seated his guests on the East portico of Mount Vernon in 30 Windsor chairs.

As a piece of furniture, the Windsor holds historical significance. Thomas Jefferson sat in a bow-back. writing-arm Windsor while composing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in late June of 1776. And when Benjamin Franklin and other members of the Continental Congress voted to secede from the mother country on , July 1, 1776 in Independence Hall, they sat in bow-back Windsors.

There are eight different kinds of American Windsors, including the low-back, or Philadelphia Windsor, named for the city where a craftsman constructed the first Windsor in the colonies, the comb-back, fan-back, bow-back, loop-back, arch-back or New England armchair, rod-back, and arrow-back. Each had its distinct use. Windsor makers socketed all parts together except for the shaped arms of the fan-back, arrow-back, and rod-back chairs. On these, they doweled the inner ends of the arms or screwed them to the back uprights.

Windsor makers preferred pine, whitewood, and basswood for seats, hickory or ash for spindles, maple. yellow birch, or beech for turned legs. stretchers, and supports, and hickory, oak, ash, or beech for hoops. bows, or combs. And because of this, makers gave their Windsors several coats of dark green paint. In the 19th century, small factory workshops produced Windsors of pine and maple. And even to this day, craftsmen still use the same time-tested techniques for constructing reproduction Windsors.

The most common form of Windsor is the bow-back with its elliptical seat and seven tapered spindles that pierce a semi-circular arm rail and bowed top rail.

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