WD: Changes in Windsor Chair Designs

I found a box of old photos in the attic the other day, artifacts from back when you would shoot a roll of thirty-six photos, leave them in the camera for three months, then take the roll to the photo shop with great anticipation, not having any idea what you would get back. This particular box had photos from about 1976 to about 1982. These were post college years for me. I had a good job, no kids yet and had a few extra shekels to spend. From the photos, I obviously didn’t spend them on clothes. (What is left of that fine collection of fashion items, my kids have used as Halloween costumes.)

(Fig. 1) One of the earliest chairs I reproduce is a Philadelphia low-back armchair.

From 1982 to 2016, styles have changed dramatically. Thank God! When we talk about “period Windsor chairs,” we sort of group them all together. But the chairs I reproduce span almost that exact length of time, 1760 -1800 (Fig. 1). (Although one is much earlier.)

Think about the difference between a 1965 Pontiac LeMans and a 2000 Chrysler Mini Van. That’s a stretch I admit, but I’m sure back in the day the changes in form and finish of Windsor chairs were just as dramatic. It’s just human nature to want to be up to date.

Construction is Consistent

Despite all of the style changes in Windsor chairs over this time period, the construction techniques and wood species used never ever varied; the old guys knew what worked. Detroit on the other hand did not. Dodge morphed a beautiful Charger into a North Korean looking K-car! When change happens slowly over time, we don’t notice it. It’s only when we look back over time that we see how dramatic the changes are. Let’s try that with Windsor chairs.

(Fig. 2) English Windsor chairs are substantially different from American chairs; some say it was due to  the beginning of a “Buy American” movement.

Two of the earliest chairs that I reproduce are a Philadelphia high back (also called a comb back or “D-Seat” because the seat is shaped like a capital D) and a Philadelphia low-back armchair. The seat and under carriage are identical on these chairs. Both chairs were produced around 1760-65, and are a good starting point for a timeline because they don’t really have any of the features the prototypical chairs produced in England had, including cabriole legs and shaped slats in the back (Fig. 2). Charles Santore, in his wonderful book about Windsor chairs, suggests that the elimination of these two distinctly English features by American makers was deliberate and came at a time when the Colonies were growing more and more dissatisfied with Mother England. He even offers documentation that there was a “Buy American” movement in the making!

The turnings on these early chairs were done beautifully, and required the time and skill of a master turner to produce. I consider myself a competent turner, but I must confess that the first time I tried to turn a leg on a treadle lathe, a common tool in the period, it was worse than a failure. It was more of a spectacle! Trying to pump the treadle to turn the tailstock and at the same time cut while turning the wood (no scraping at this slow speed) was like trying to pat your head and rub your belly while standing on one foot and singing “Fiddler on the Roof!”

To continue reading this presentation or to watch the video, you must
purchase a 360 Fanatic Membership.

Posted on
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *