It’s hard to find a piece of furniture with more American associations than the rocking chair. Benjamin Franklin toyed with the design by attaching a foot pedal to his—it was connected to an overhead fan, which he used to keep himself cool. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a rocking chair while John F. Kennedy had his official portrait taken in one after his doctor recommended it for his troubled back.
In fact, rockers were around in late-17th-century England, but they proliferated in the American colonies during the early 18th century. Whatever their true origins, rockers was certainly popular in the United States by the early 1800s, when several British travelers’ accounts described—sometimes with disdain—the chair that could be “found wherever Americans sit down,” as Frances Anne Butler put it in 1835. In 1844, a British commentator in a Vermont newspaper described the furniture as “of exclusive American contrivance and use,” and extolled the “comfort and luxurious ease of these wooden narcotics.”
Some of the earliest rocking chairs were formed from regular chairs with wooden rockers added to their legs. These prototypical rockers were perhaps inspired by cradles, which had existed for centuries. In fact, some of the oldest known rocking chairs were sized for toddlers. Some early examples of these served a dual purpose of potty training: a hole for that use was cut in the middle of the seat, which was then covered by a cushion for the chair’s more conventional application.
The first adult rocking chairs were likely used to rock children to sleep by nurses or mothers. In 19th-century art and early photographs, rocking chairs were associated with women, and few men were shown sitting in them except the very young, very old, and invalids.
The earliest rocking chairs often had thick, tall rockers that extended equidistantly behind and in front of the chair legs. As the 18th century progressed, the rockers tended to extend further behind the chair than in front and became narrower and more graceful in shape.
Collectors of antique rocking chairs often try to verify whether the rocker was built originally as a rocking chair or whether rockers were simply added to an existing chair, as was commonly practiced. For example, the record books of chairmaker William Beesley of New Jersey show that around 1825, he charged $3.50 for a new rocking chair but only 50 cents to add rockers. Paint layers, the location of the chair’s stretchers, and the shape and marks on the leg tips can be clues to its history.
The perennially popular Windsor chairs, introduced to America from England in 1720, were commonly used to make rockers. These chairs, marked by the several spindles to support th...
These early 18th-century chairs were often made with more than one wood: Easy-to-work pine and tulip wood made good seats; pliable ash or hickory were used for the bowed back and spindles; durable woods like maple were strong enough for legs. Because of the mishmash of woods, the chairs were commonly painted.
By the beginning of the 19th century, rocking chairs were becoming better engineered and ergonomic. Perhaps the most famous and ubiquitous design from this era—and one that is still being made today—was the Boston rocking chair, whose seat formed an S-shape with its front lip rolling down and its back lip rolling up. The seat was much more comfortable and supportive of the lower back than its predecessors and was later described by furniture chronicler Wallace Nutting as “the most popular chair ever made.”
The Shakers were also producing furniture during this period. Among their most recognized objects was their rocking chair, a slate-back, narrow chair made of birch or maple. The seats were made of splint, rush, cane, or woven tape. Per the Shaker style, there was a distinct lack of ornamentation (with the exception of a pair of plain finials at the top of the chair’s back) in order not to detract from the purity of form.
In the second quarter of the 19th century, rocking chairs became more elaborately ornamented and ever more comfortable. Many rocking chairs at the time were decorated in the Empire style, painted a dark color and then ornamented with gold and bronze metallic powders stenciled into popular motifs such as scrolls, flowers, birds, and cornucopias. Connecticut furniture maker Lambert Hitchcock was an early adherent to this aesthetic, so chairs made in this style are often generically referred to as Hitchcock chairs.
As the 1800s progressed, the practice of retrofitting old wooden chairs on rockers went out of style. Many newer rocking chairs had seats and backs made of resilient woven cane, decorative perforated veneer, or durable steel bands.
Upholstered seats and backs became especially popular on Grecian-style chairs, sometimes referred to as Lincoln rockers. These easy chairs on rockers had comfortable, contoured seats and backs, as well as open arms—like an antique version of the La-Z-Boy. The addition of upholstery not only made the chairs more comfortable, but also helped them gain acceptability in formal parlors.
In 1860, production started on one of the most successful rocking chairs of all time, the bentwood rocker. Invented in Austria by cabinet-maker Michael Thonet, the chairs were marked by their multiple and decorative curves of beech, within which were fabric slings for the seat, back, and arms. These now-classic chairs have been constructed almost continuously ever since, with a short hiatus only during World War II.
About the same time, inventors began patenting rockers with new mechanisms, such as folding rockers and office-chair rockers. Platform rockers also came into vogue, with a stationary bottom that the rocking chair was suspended above. These chairs, which preceded similar modern-day recliners and swivel rockers, saved space, were easy on carpets, and could be disguised as a more formal armchair.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Arts and Crafts movement swept the nation, and with it came Mission rocking chairs by Gustav Stickley, his rival brothers, and Charles and Henry Greene. Like other products of the period, Mission rocking chairs were a move away from mass-produced furniture and toward craftsmanship. Generally made of oak, Mission-style rockers were famous for their sturdiness, comfort, and simplicity.
A decade or so into the 20th century, U.S. furniture designers began revisiting the past by producing products in the colonial style. Reproductions came into vogue, often gussied up with more elaborate décor than the antiques they were based upon. Then, after World War II, the Mid-century Modern era and its austere aesthetic arrived, producing ultra-simplistic and modular furniture. The most famous rocking chair from this era was by Charles and Rae Eames, whose molded-fiberglass seat and bent-wire frame sat atop a pair of slender and tapered wooden rockers.