In Focus

Back stool, 18th century, Newport/Rhode Island

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

In England and on the Continent chairs with upholstered backs such as this example were not uncommon among the aristocracy. Unlike middle and lower-class consumers, the elite could afford the great expense of upholstery fabrics. In their lavish European country and town houses, the rich used back stools in a variety of rooms from at least the mid seventeenth century. Often bought in large sets, back stools were placed along the walls of bedchambers and reception rooms in order to create a formal atmosphere of luxury and comfort.

Back stools were popular in Great Britain throughout the 18th century. In 1765, for example, the London cabinetmaker Robert Manwaring included four designs for upholstered back stools in The Cabinet and Chair-maker's Real Friend and Companion. Due to their comfortable, upholstered backs and bottoms, 18th-century back stools were used by the elite in situations which required prolonged periods of sitting. In contemporary paintings and prints, back stools are shown most frequently next to dressing tables and candlestands, around card tables, and in dining rooms. A painting in William Hogarth's series Marriage-a-la-Mode (ca. 1745), for example, depicts a great hall and antechamber furnished with a large set of back stools similar to the one seen here. The chairs are shown next to card and breakfast tables. Both the exhausted bride and groom repose in such chairs. Back stools were not made solely for the comfort of women as has been suggested, but rather were highly versatile and comfortable chairs for the use of both sexes.

In America back stools were seldom used. With rare exceptions, the colonies simply did not possess the aristocratic level of wealth and refinement which characterized the European use of such objects. Only in a few urban centers did significant capital and social pretensions combine to produce these elitist objects. Newport, Rhode Island was the most important of these urban centers. More back stools survive from Newport than any other colonial cabinetmaking center. This simple fact suggests that Newport's elite strongly identified with their English counterparts. The early architecture of the town further supports this hypothesis. Structures such as the Redwood Library (built 1748), for example, could not be more in keeping with English upper-class aesthetics of the period.

The Bybee back stool originally belonged to a larger set of chairs. This example is numbered IIII and another virtually identical chair survives with the number VI on its seat frame. This second chair has an oral tradition of having belonged to the Maynard and Hazard families of Newport. In addition, two similar armchairs are also known. The illustrated chair is numbered VII. The other armchair, which is unnumbered, has probably had its arms replaced. All four of these chairs are identical in size, proportions, construction, materials, and carving. Their seat frames are all roughly relieved as on the Bybee example.

Since the Bybee chair has blocks for holding a chamber pot frame, it is possible that the set of back stools from which it came was used in a bedchamber. In 18th-century England and America, bedchambers functioned as dressing and breakfast rooms, as well as entertainment areas for one's closest friends. A set of comfortable back stools which included a toilet chair would have been a potent symbol of wealth and aspiration for a member of Newport's elite.

Excerpted 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), 29.