Published: May 7, 2002
CHADDS FORD, PENN. – For more than 100 years in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, Windsor chairs were the most popular seating style in America, not only for adults, but also for children. Both highchairs and low chairs were necessary for children’s convenience. While many families made do with earlier plank sided and rush bottom chairs, surviving examples prove that parents were also willing to commission small chairs in the new Windsor styles made by the best craftsmen.
From May 25 through July 28, the Brandywine River Museum will offer a special exhibition of antique Windsor chairs. “: American Chairs for Children, 1760-1850,” will present 27 varied and exceptional examples of such furniture. Charles Santore, Windsor chair expert and noted illustrator, is consultant to the project and selected the chairs for exhibition. His selection features a range of Windsor styles made in Philadelphia — the center for manufacture, development and distribution of Windsor designs — as well as in New York and New England where distinctive interpretations were crafted.
From the beginning of their manufacture, children’s chairs kept pace with design changes in adult seating. The earliest American Windsor style, the comb back of the mid Eighteenth Century, is represented in the exhibition by two highchairs of superb quality. Like full-size chairs, these well proportioned examples have ball feet and cylinder legs adapted from Delaware Valley rush bottomed seating. Despite their elegant turnings, highchairs in this style were abandoned because they required more time to shape legs and scale them to proper heights. By the 1770s new designs featured tapered legs and no feet. These were easier to turn and could be cut as needed to adjust the height.
The exhibition highlights two so-called “lowchairs” in the comb back style. One from Rhode Island demonstrates the problem chair makers sometimes had in proportioning seating for children. Although its top half is too large for the short, squat legs, its odd proportions provide great character and individuality.
Fanback chairs, which bear resemblance to comb backs, were the second Windsor style developed. A child’s side chair branded by Elisha Tracy of Connecticut displays sculptural qualities in its turnings and precision in its proportions. In comparison, a fanback armchair from Nantucket, displays a delicate, yet no less sturdy, approach to overall design.
A Windsor high back settee, which may be the only surviving example of its kind from the Eighteenth Century, is a highlight of the exhibition. Unusual squared tips of the crest reveal its origins in the Connecticut-Rhode Island border region.
Bow back Windsors, made from the mid 1780s to 1800, are represented by Philadelphia and New York examples. The Philadelphia bow back side chair, circa 1787, is one of a pair from the shop of Joseph Henzey. While bow backs characteristically display plain, curved crest rails, this bow back is unusual for the rail’s decorative baluster ring and taper turning just above the ends that fit into the seat. More over, its legs have round baluster turnings common to earlier Windsors instead of the bamboo turning common to Philadelphia chairs of its period. Another bow back, a finely proportioned child’s chair from New York, displays baluster leg turnings characteristic of that region. One masterpiece of design in the exhibition is a child’s continuous bow armchair made in New York between 1790 and 1800. The chair is remarkable for its superbly scaled proportions, sculptural seat and vase turned back spindles embellished with incised lines, known as beads.
The exhibition also offers a comparison between three remarkable interpretations of the sack back Windsor in both highchairs and low chairs from Philadelphia, New York and Rhode Island. In addition, Windsor cradles proved a pleasant alternative to traditional board-style versions because they allowed better air circulation and viewing of the interior. The exhibition includes a cradle made by John Letchworth of Philadelphia between 1790 and 1800. It is unique for its innovative, beautiful design incorporating two chairs backs to create the cradle hood.
Late Eighteenth to early Nineteenth Century Windsor furniture for adults and children was influenced by Federal style furniture. Windsor craftsmen moved away from decorative turnings toward simpler forms embellished with painted designs. Square back Windsors with simple bamboo turnings and a related design with a double crest rail separated by three vertical spindles, known as a “bird cage,” are typical of this period and are represented by two finely proportioned pieces. The last gasp of the Windsor style in the mid Nineteenth Century, resulted in low back armchairs with heavy proportions, a box stretcher arrangement and simple, factory turned parts. A sturdy “hole” chair (otherwise known as a potty seat) in the exhibition demonstrates the continued adaptability of Windsor design.
“: American Chairs for Children, 1760-1850” offers the opportunity to closely examine the finest and rarest of such forms through examples lent from private collections and museums.
The Brandywine River Museum is on US Route 1. It is open daily 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. For information, 610-388-2700 or visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm