Flashback: Two Centuries of Comfort

March 27th, 2009

This article focuses on corner (or roundabout) chairs, a comfortable chair first popular in England in the 18th century. It notes that no two corner chairs look alike and lists the top reasons why they are desirable. It originally appeared in the October 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

(American Collector Editor’s Note: Some three years ago Mr. Millar, a general collector of American antiques, became especially interested in the roundabout chair. Since then, one at a time, he has gathered a collection of about forty. His preference having been always for the simple antiques of small-town and farm origin, his roundabout chair collection is naturally dominated by those of that type rather than the sophisticated ones of Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia.

Illustration I: A transitional chair combining style elements of both the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods. Made of maple, the crude simplicity of the curved area and simple comb suggest that these parts may be a crude farm repair replacement as are also the front right stretcher and the front seat stretchers. The latter were made of wax handles. With the rush seat removed, the structure of this chair shows its relation to that of the steel girder skeleton of present-day building.

Illustration I: A transitional chair combining style elements of both the William and Mary and Queen Anne periods. Made of maple, the crude simplicity of the curved area and simple comb suggest that these parts may be a crude farm repair replacement as are also the front right stretcher and the front seat stretchers. The latter were made of wax handles. With the rush seat removed, the structure of this chair shows its relation to that of the steel girder skeleton of present-day building.

American Collector is happy to publish this article for two reasons: First, so little has been written about this variety of chair, and, second, Mr. Millar’s collection is an example of what can be accomplished at this present time by anyone with a particular interest and readiness to search for examples of his specialty. To have gathered, in three years, forty roundabout chairs of different styles and designs at moderate prices is evidence enough that there are still plenty of desirable American antiques available for the person who is willing to hunt for them.)

Death was prosecuting Patrick Henry. Death, which had been the Virginian’s last-ditch choice way back in March of 1775.

Now it was the spring of 1799. And the old patriot, who had thundered and lightninged for Liberty a third of a century, was house-ridden.

Bed was unthinkable. An upholstered chair too hot and restricting. A side chair a mere way station. But in his desk chair, a walnut corner chair, Patrick Henry was tolerably comfortable. There, with calling friends and relatives, with mountain torrent memories of immortal phrases born when his heart was hot, he prepared his last case; there he died, June 6, after thanking God for His goodness, for having blessed him all his life, for permitting him to die without pain.

Illustration II: A well-proportioned country chair, with original Cape Cod brown paint, circa 1780-1800. Made of maple with hickory back-slats. The turnings of legs and all eight stretchers are vigorous. The Cupid's bow outline of upper edge of back-slat differs from that of ladder-back chairs of the period.

Illustration II: A well-proportioned country chair, with original Cape Cod brown paint, circa 1780-1800. Made of maple with hickory back-slats. The turnings of legs and all eight stretchers are vigorous. The Cupid's bow outline of upper edge of back-slat differs from that of ladder-back chairs of the period.

A daughter, Mrs. Martha Fontaine, described the Patrick Henry corner chair as a “large, old-fashioned armchair.” That it was, even then, with its solid vase-shaped splats and square Chippendale legs runged with rectangular stretchers. It, and twelve “plain Walnut chairs” were valued at nine pounds, fifteen shillings when the estate was appraised.

Into our ailing house two years ago ambled a contractor — an ex-professional baseball player — two hundred pounds of energy on a six-foot frame flagged with red hair. His apathy for antiques was matched only by my uninterest in the national game. On his visits I noticed he instinctively chose to sit in roundabouts. A few weeks ago his wife whispered that Jack wants to acquire one — “only antique I’d have around,” he had confessed — and she isn’t informing him that the better furniture companies still reproduce them!

Cited in the foregoing is the main reason for popularity of corner chairs during the past two hundred-and-more years: They are comfortable!

In addition, they have other desirable qualities: They are economical of space. Their construction gives them strong constitutions. Their design makes them ideal for several uses. They have cheerful, inviting personalities. Even a novice couldn’t make an utterly bad one.

Illustration III: An unusually compact chair with noticeably low back. Made of maple with ash slats, only the stretchers at the front are ornamentally turned

Illustration III: An unusually compact chair with noticeably low back. Made of maple with ash slats, only the stretchers at the front are ornamentally turned.

Little enough that is authoritative is known about corner or roundabout chairs. In fact, little has been written about them — and the little that follows is, in itself, partly surmise.

Furniture detectives do agree that the corner chair was made in England long before it appeared in America. The fact that the design plates of English cabinetmakers — including Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton — do not depict a single corner chair is confirming evidence of the very early birth of this chair form. Even in Chippendale’s time, corner chairs were simply corner chairs, old-fashioned, out of style. Nor have any cabinetmakers’ miniature or exhibition samples — from which orders were taken — come down to us, either in England or America. By the time cabinetmakers were writing books and making sample-miniatures, everyone knew what corner chairs looked like. If a customer wished to order one, the cabinetmaker knew he could count upon the client being prolific with specifications for this, a very personal chair.

Illustration IV: The shaping of the slats is uncommon, especially the Cupid's bow of lower edge. So like a chair made by Lieutenant Benjamin Vassal (1742-1828), and now owned by the Worcester Society of Antiquities, that both may have been his work.

Illustration IV: The shaping of the slats is uncommon, especially the Cupid's bow of lower edge. So like a chair made by Lieutenant Benjamin Vassal (1742-1828), and now owned by the Worcester Society of Antiquities, that both may have been his work.

While 18th-Century French cabinetmakers were specializing in developing furniture for the boudoir, English designers and furniture makers were concentrating on chairs. This was pretty much the result of the social revolution which began in the 17th Century. In England, the king and the court were window dressing for a powerful group of land speculators, ship-owners, merchant princes, and brokers. These 18th-Century Babbitts demanded solid comfort for their money — and what could be more comfortable than a good chair. Consequently, the wing, the desk, the porter, the Windsor, the writing, and the roundabout are just a few of their long list of special-purpose chairs.

Architecture obviously influences furniture design. In the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, scarcely any furniture was “free-standing.” Most furniture was then placed back to the wall. Design emphasis naturally centered on the front and sides of a piece. Early corner chairs are typical — well-shaped or turned front legs and plain rear legs, a chair which always “puts its best front forward” no matter how severely plain its back may be.

Illustration V: A chair of over-size proportions and simple detail. The wide sweep of the pine arms, thirty-six inches across, with almost circular ends suggest it may have been designed for use in a tavern taproom.

Illustration V: A chair of over-size proportions and simple detail. The wide sweep of the pine arms, thirty-six inches across, with almost circular ends suggest it may have been designed for use in a tavern taproom.

While no labeled corner chair is known, it should not be assumed they never were made by master craftsmen. Many examples in museums and good private collections could have been made only by the leading cabinetmakers of London. Salem, Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, for example. The great majority of roundabouts found in this country were, naturally, simple, honest products of village shops. It is difficult to spot-date corner chairs, because as whim hit the makers they continued to incorporate in their designs features borrowed from early slat-backs, from William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, and other style periods.

Chair genealogists point to the 13th Century, three-legged, broad-U-backed, Gothic Windsor chair from St. Cross Hospital, Winchester, England, as the paternal ancestor of both roundabouts and Windsors. Others say the roundabout was god-mothered, at least, by the three-cornered Varangian type chair of Elizabethean days — which, in turn, traced its line back to Constantinople. A Rhode Island corner chair, dated 1694, which looks like a true sib of the St. Cross Windsor, is shown by Wallace Nutting (page 160, Vol. III, Furniture Treasury).

Illustration VI: Of maple in Queen Anne style, circa 1720-1740. The front cabriole leg terminating in a Dutch foot and turned diagonal stretchers are the outstanding features of this chair.

Illustration VI: Of maple in Queen Anne style, circa 1720-1740. The front cabriole leg terminating in a Dutch foot and turned diagonal stretchers are the outstanding features of this chair.

With varieties in the styles of the sum total of antique chairs running literally into the thousands, it is no miracle that the corner chair developed into a definite form-style. Every early “joyner” and cabinetmaker had wide latitude for expression of creative desires: It was a time when “rugged individualism” was a valuable trademark. The first true corner chair may have been a studied modification of existing forms. Or it may have originated as an accident: A day-dreaming apprentice, a careless or drunken worker, may have placed the two legs of a chair on opposite, instead of adjacent corners of the base during the fitting process — and then, in a prankish mood may have added an extra, or back leg. Next, what more natural than a rounded back — like the crude Windsors — to connect the three rear legs?

Illustration VII: Somewhat Gothic in outline, this commode chair of cherry dates between 1760 and 1800. The seat is removable, disclosing the construction for the commode which is hidden by the deep skirts of the front.

Illustration VII: Somewhat Gothic in outline, this commode chair of cherry dates between 1760 and 1800. The seat is removable, disclosing the construction for the commode which is hidden by the deep skirts of the front.

Of one thing I feel certain: Once the unknown joiner completed the first roundabout, he just wasn’t happy until he could start making a better one — one that would embody some innovations and refinements he already had in mind. Put the least inventive person studying three or four corner chairs today and he will start culling a splat from this one, an arm or comb from another, to match with the legs or stretchers of the third or fourth — thus mentally creating a modified chair nearer his visioned ideal.

Just the other day I saw two roundabouts of Japanese oak. They were made a year ago in Tokio by a Japanese cabinetmaker for a member of the American Embassy. The maker bore only an average reputation as a craftsman. He never had constructed a chair — that “needless piece of furniture used by the foreign devils.” As a guide, he was given an illustration from a House Beautiful advertisement. The first chair is a careful, imitative likeness of the one in that illustration. The American approved it and praised the maker. But while working on the second, the cabinetmaker caught the enthusiasm which I suspect has fired every maker of corner chairs. He just had to make it a trifle different — a richer curve to the arm rails, a little more flare to the comb, a fuller hand termination. And, the result is a better chair than the faithful copy!

Illustration VIII: A remarkably large chair. Made about 1720, it has four cabriole legs terminating in Spanish feet and no cross stretchers, which is most unusual in American chairs of this type.

Illustration VIII: A remarkably large chair. Made about 1720, it has four cabriole legs terminating in Spanish feet and no cross stretchers, which is most unusual in American chairs of this type.

This is a good case history of why one never sees identical twins in corner chairs. If an imitative, regimented Japanese could not resist the improvement-urge long enough to produce a matching pair, how could a free Englishman or an inventive Yankee? Fred Finnerty, Charles Street, Boston, once told me he had owned a pair. Exactly alike? Well, not exactly — almost. He had bought the contents of a house, and downstairs was a corner chair that had been in use since 1800. In the attic was its “mate” — every single piece, but all “in the white,” and never assembled. Its maker, I feel, had been ashamed of his unoriginality, yet he hadn’t broken the “code” by completing the second chair!

The corner chair is the only antique form of furniture which has improved when liberties have been taken in reproducing it. Uniquely, this characteristic has lent it an enduring virility.

Illustration IX: Of the commode type, this mahogany chair has always been part of the office furniture of the Walter Baker chocolate mill in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Records of other chairs purchased by Dr. James Baker in 1771 from Ezra Badlam, Boston cabinetmaker, suggest that he may also have acquired this one at the same time.

Illustration IX: Of the commode type, this mahogany chair has always been part of the office furniture of the Walter Baker chocolate mill in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Records of other chairs purchased by Dr. James Baker in 1771 from Ezra Badlam, Boston cabinetmaker, suggest that he may also have acquired this one at the same time.

During Colonial days, rooms generally were small and homes were made smaller by large families. Several types of space-saving furniture came into universal use — corner cupboards, corner stands, triangular and tuckaway tables, and folding beds. It is understandable that the roundabout chair was prized for its corner-fitting propensities alone, not to mention its back which was low enough to be out of the way.

But it could not have been long before the chair’s other good qualities were appreciated.

1. It is an ideal writing or desk chair, giving both freedom and back support for either a right- or left-handed person — a chair in which one does not tire quickly, for the writer’s legs and body can be turned to either side.

2. For the bookworm, it is excelled only by the wing chair. The English added extension combs to some of their roundabouts and called them “reading chairs.” Only a few of this type were made in the hardworking Colonies.

3. Early portrait painters liked to pose their subjects in corner chairs: The sitters were at ease for longer periods — and, the low backs of the chairs didn’t clutter up the canvasses.

Illustration X: A semi-sophisticated chair of cherry with pierced backsplat. In the Chippendale manner, it was made circa 1765-1785. The rectangular cross stretchers and ornamental brackets beneath the joining of seat frame and legs are unusual. The curved arms and comb are restrained in outline.

Illustration X: A semi-sophisticated chair of cherry with pierced backsplat. In the Chippendale manner, it was made circa 1765-1785. The rectangular cross stretchers and ornamental brackets beneath the joining of seat frame and legs are unusual. The curved arms and comb are restrained in outline.

4. A corner chair was a good investment: It is sturdy and almost impossible to wrack by tilting on the “rear” legs. Furthermore, the low back doesn’t give enough leverage to put a breaking strain at the point where the legs join the seat — a weak spot in other conventional chair forms.

5. Until the introduction of bathrooms, a corner commode chair was a highly prized piece of bedroom furniture—and almost a necessity when there was an invalid in the home. (One of the author’s was on loan to a room-confined convalescent this summer.)

6. In a New England counting room, the merchant or head clerk, working in a roundabout, easily could sweep the room with his eyes and see that all hands were keeping busy. In a mill, or shop, where the owner’s duties took him in and out of doors, a corner chair was roomy enough to accommodate him without removal of his greatcoat as he snatched a few moments at his daybook.

7. And isn’t it typically American that merchandising- minded Colonial tavern keepers saw to it that a few roundabouts always were reserved for their best consumers?

We’ve saved our greenest laurel for corner chairs to the last: Even wives like ‘em!

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.


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