In Focus

Side chair, Delaware Valley, 18th century [1988.B.69]

The following essay is from the 1989 publication _American Furniture in the Bybee Collection, _by Charles L. Venable.

Slat-back chairs such as this example represent the blending of two distinct furniture traditions in the Delaware Valley. As Benno M. Forman has shown, the basic form of this type of chair was derived from a rural Germanic tradition. The gradual tapering of the four posts from bottom to top and the inverted cone turnings beneath the balls on the front legs, for example, are features found on Central European chairs. The use of two balls separated by a ring on the front stretcher, however, is not of Germanic origin. Rather, its use can be traced to the importation into Philadelphia of Boston-made chairs during the 1720s. Eastern Massachusetts turned chair routinely have such stretchers. By grafting the ball-and-ring stretcher of fashionable New England chairs onto a local tradition of Germanic slat-back chairs, Philadelphia chairmakers could more effectively compete in the marketplace.

Due to its combination of desired stylistic features, its comfort, and its low cost, this hybrid chair proved to be extremely popular. In the Philadelphia area, chairmakers such as Solomon Fussell (ca. 1760-1762), for example, made enormous quantities of them from the 1730s onward. In southern New Jersey, Maskell Ware (1766-1846) and twenty-two of his descendants produced slat-back chairs based on this Philadelphia form from the 1790s until the 1930s.

As a consequence of its popularity, numerous examples exist today. However, few of these chairs survive in as excellent state of preservation as the one seen here. The turnings on the bottom of this chair's front feet, for example, are of particular importance; most of these chairs have had these elements worn away. Furthermore, the rush seat appears to be old and may represent the rare survival of an original woven seat.

As important as its fine state of preservation is the quality of this chair's design and execution. The care with which the four posts taper upwards from thick to thin, as opposed to the harmonic progression from thin to thick of the back splats, indicate that this chair was designed by a master craftsman. Similarly, the bold and crisp turnings reveal the hand of an experienced and gifted turner probably working before 1750. While this chair form was made throughout the 19th century, the use of unattenuated ball-and-cone turnings in the front stretcher predominated in the earliest phase of this chairmaking tradition.

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), 40-41.