In Focus

Rush-bottomed armchair, 18th century [1988.B.70]

The following essay is from the 1989 publication American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, by Charles L. Venable_._


When new, this chair functioned as both a place to sit, and as a symbol of patriarchal power. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, chairs were not plentiful among most colonial American families. Large and relatively elaborate chairs, such as this example, would have been used by the head of a household. His wife may have had a lesser version of the same chair, while children probably sat on benches, stools, or even tree stumps.

In the 17th century, armchairs were often constructed of turned parts, not unlike this early 18th century side chair (1985.B.6), also a part of the Bybee Collection at the DMA. However, by the early 18th century, cabinet - and chairmakers who employed a variety of joinery techniques had come to dominate the furniture-making trades. Turners who incorporated only turned elements in their products either learned to use these new joinery techniques, or were relegated to producing the most inexpensive and less desirable types of furniture.

This armchair reflects the impact of the cabinetmaker on the ancient profession of turning. While the rush seat, turned front stretcher, and vertical stiles are typical of earlier work, the rest of the chair is totally of framed construction. The side and rear stretchers, rear stiles, arms, back splat, and crest rail were all sawed out and then assembled with mortise-and-tenon joints. Even the turned front stiles have feet which were carved rather than turned.

One of the events which precipitated this shift from turned to framed chairs in the colonies was the appearance of framed chairs in Boston in the late 1720s. By the early 1730s, Boston chairmakers were producing framed chairs with cabriole legs, molded rear stiles, shaped crest rails, vase-shaped splats, and scrolled arms. The exportation of such chairs throughout New England and to Philadelphia greatly influenced colonial American chairmaking.

Due to the wide distribution of these Boston chairs, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of chairs such as the Bybee example. Related examples are known from several areas in New England. However, details such as the carved volutes of the crest rail, the turnings on the stretcher and front stiles, and the flat side and back stretchers suggest an eastern Massachusetts or coastal New Hampshire origin. It is in fact possible that this chair represents the middle-level product of a Boston chairmaker. The carved crest rail, vase-shape splat, molded stiles, and scrolled arms are all similar to more elaborate Boston work. The absence of turned side stretchers, cabriole legs, chamfered rear legs, well-articulated feet, and a framed seat may simply reflect economic constraints. If this chair was made in Boston for a middle-class customer, it probably dates from the 1740s; it retains "paintbrush feet" which were most popular in urban areas between 1720 and 1740. However, a rural craftsman working for a more conservative clientele could have produced this chair as late as the third quarter of the 18th century.

Excerpt from

Charles L. Venable, American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, published in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, 1989), 38-39.