In Focus

Armchair [1985.B.14], 18th century, Philadelphia

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

During the mid-18th century, Philadelphia chairmakers made a wide variety of chairs for a varied clientele. Inexpensive turned chairs (such as 1988.B.69 in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection) were available for use in lower and middle-class homes and for the service areas of opulent mansions. Framed chairs with rush seats (1985.B.23) were were also supplied to those who could pay more. However, the most fashionable and costly of all Philadelphia chairs made during this period were similar to this example.

The high cost of these chairs was due to the quality of materials used and the quantity of materials used and the quantity of labor needed in construction. This example is completely made of expensive black walnut and imported upholstery fabric. Before assembly and finishing could begin, the chairmaker had to saw out and smooth approximately twenty hand-shaped parts. Given the curvilinear design of this chair, the production and fitting of these varied elements took great skill and many hours. Accordingly, such chairs cost the large sum of £2 to £3 when new.

The controlled use of undulating lines and the interaction between positive and negative space seen in this chair represent of one of the finest adaptations of late-baroque design in colonial America. The basic chair form with compass (rounded) seat, cabriole legs, and curved rear stiles was derived from early 18th-century English chairs. However, the use of slipper-feet with "tongue"-shaped ridges and the joining of the seat rails with round tenons extending up from the front legs may be evidence of Irish and German chairmaking traditions in Philadelphia.

Once this chair form was developed in the 1730s or early 1740s, it became popular among Philadelphia's elite. Numerous variations incorporating several splat patterns, crest rail designs, and feet shapes are known. Although few other armchairs exactly like this example have been identified, several side chairs exist which have the same options as this chair. The existence of a "I" on the frame of this chair and a "II" on its slip seat suggests that this example once was part of a set of chairs which contained at least one other armchair.

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), 44.