In Focus

Rushed armchair [1985.B.23], 18th century, Philadelphia

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

In the history of American furniture, Philadelphia is generally known for elaborate walnut and mahogany chairs which its craftsmen made in the late-baroque and rococo tastes. However, during the 18th century, the vast majority of Philadelphians could not afford such objects. To serve the needs of the middle class, Philadelphia chairmakers produced thousands of rush-bottom maple chairs.

Two of the most prolific producers of this type of seating furniture were Solomon Fussel (ca. 1700-1762) and William Savery. In an exceptional essay, Benno M. Forman outlined the nature of Fusell's shop and the relationship between him and his apprentice, Savery. To produce a rush-bottom chair, Fusell employed the services of numerous craftsmen. In general, the turned elements, seat lists, and rush bottoms were made by workmen other than Fussell and were often fashioned outside of his shop altogether. By using outside labor, Fussell was able to stockpile chair parts for future assembly in his shop. While apprenticed to Fussell during the 1730s, Savery would have leaned to make chairs as his master did - by streamlining production for increased efficiency and higher output.

The armchair seen here reflects this link between master and apprentice. For at least a decade following his departure from Fussell's shop in 1742, Savery made Fussell-type chairs, the design of which was originally based on imported Boston examples. The swelled stretchers (much larger than on Boston chairs), square "crooked feet," and splat shape all relate to Boston chairs.

Fussell's shop was making Philadelphia versions of Boston chairs with cabriole legs by the 1730s. Typically, armchairs such as this example cost between 25 and 50 percent more than side chairs and were almost always "colored or dyed." Brown, black, red, and organge were popular colors. This particular example shows evidence of having been a dark reddish-brown originally.

Unlike his master, William Savery labeled much of his furniture. On rush-bottom chairs he often applied the label to the lower back side of the splat. The Bybee example retains a rectangular area of glue residue approximating the size of a Savery label on its splat. More important, this armchair is strikingly similar to labeled Savery chairs. Its splat, scooped crest rail, seat skirt, stretchers, cabriole legs, and rear posts all suggest a Savery attribution.

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), 42.