This article discusses slat-back chairs throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries – specifically the countries they were made in, the varying styles, and their evolution from a crudely-made country chair to an elaborately designed piece of furniture, and then back to a plainer, more simplistic utilitarian item. It originally appeared in the January 1941 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
A winter or two ago Connecticut basket-maker made a set of six three-slat side chairs from basket stock of ash and oak which he had on hand. Although his shop was less than a hundred miles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he had never been in the American Wing. There was not an antique in his house; nor did he borrow a model from a neighbor. Deep snow had interrupted his regular work and his wife needed chairs. So, from recollection, the tools in his shop, and skill in working with wood gained by nearly fifty years of splint basket-making, he turned time back to the mid or late 17th Century.
Legs and stretchers were made smooth and round on the shaving horse; the three slats for the back were finished and bent to the proper concaved curve; holes for stretchers were bored in the short front legs and longer back ones and mortices were cut in the latter for the ends of the slats. Then he put the chairs together, making stretchers and seat rails fast with hand-whittled pegs and weaving seats of basket splint.
These chairs were guiltless of decorative turnings or back finials; but later, when I saw them, I was struck by their close resemblance to slat-backs of the same type made in America during the Puritan Century. Also, I realized that their structure was as adequate for the use intended as is the steel skeleton of the most carefully engineered skyscraper. All of which probably explains not only the primitive slat-backs still being made in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but the span of time covered by the collectible antique ones.
Of course, during the two centuries and more of their making in America, there were modifications in the size and outline of legs, stretchers, and slats, as well as regional variations of the ornamental turnings, but they were still slat-backs and as such remained prime favorites with rich and poor alike. They ranged from crude examples for primitive farm households to sophisticated chairs for the man of means, made by such craftsmen as William Savery of Philadelphia. The fine decorative turnings and elaborately arched slats of his chairs, however, were but the refinement of a chair form that antedated Philadelphia by over two hundred years.
Slat-backs were made in such parts of Continental Europe as the Low Countries, France, Northern Italy, Southern Germany, and Scandinavia from the middle or last quarter of the 15th Century. They were enough in use at that time so that they are depicted in paintings and engravings of both religious and secular subjects. Chairs were still rarities in England; but late in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, some extremely crude ones of slat-back construction appeared.
Their making became a little more general with the reign of James I and the design was clearly that from which American slat-backs were developed. The English slat-backs were not found in the court circle, however, but in the homes of country squires of means — particularly in the Midlands and along the east coast, the area from which came a large proportion of the original settlers of New England.
These early colonists probably brought little, if any, furniture with them, but the woodworking craftsmen among them had clear recollections of the furniture then being made in England and the slat-back chair was one of the pieces they remembered best. Back home it remained largely a country chair made, until the beginning of the 19th Century, in crude form for the cottages of farm laborers and with some grace and refinement for country gentry. Elm was used for the former; ash, beech, oak, and even walnut, for the better chairs.
As English collectors have never given these country slat-backs much attention, practically nothing has been recorded about them and relatively few have been pictured or described. One of the exceptions is the slat-back armchair that stands beside the fireplace in the great kitchen at Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington.
This kitchen had been greatly altered many years ago. And although restoration of the manor was begun in 1920, it was not until 1930 that the fireplace and complete furnishings of the period were removed from a manor house at Weston Corbett and installed in the kitchen at Sulgrave Manor. Among them was this slat-back chair. Made of ash, the front and rear legs have characteristically English bobbin turnings and the finials are ball-shaped. The arms curve slightly from back to front with a graceful downward turn at the outer ends, much like the arms of the later wainscot chairs. The four slats are bent in a deep curve and have a bold curve on the upper side with straight underside. The seat is rush. Although H. Clifford Smith, F. S. A. of the Victoria and Albert Museum, under whose direction the furnishings for the restored Sulgrave Manor were procured, does not date this chair, he does record that it came from the northern part of Hampshire and indicates that it was made before the middle of the 17th Century.
Other slat-backs illustrated and described in various English books and periodicals include: an 18th-Century chair of ash where the front legs are shaped like those found on early Queen Anne tables of American provenance. They terminate with simple pad feet. The front cross stretcher is boldly turned, the vase motif being used. The slats, of which there are six, graduating downward in width, are like none that I have seen on American chairs. They curve sharply upward from where they join the back legs and then slightly downward in the center. The flat arms curve slightly outward and terminate just beyond the point where the front legs support them. The rear legs, like Pennsylvania chairs, are straight and are without decorative turnings. This is a country chair of the 18th Century in which the maker has striven for a degree of urban grace.
Another example is that of a child’s chair dating about 1780 and of Lancashire provenance. In construction and turnings, it is almost identical with the American Carver chair, which was a 17th-Century variant of the slat-back with horizontal and vertical spindles in place of the usual slats.
A third example is a roundabout chair in a collection at Wycombe. The rear and side legs are connected by two slats on each side that are simply arched, and the curved arm is similar to American 18th-Century chairs of this kind. The short leg beneath the right angle of the front of the seat is of cabriole design, but not so pronounced as some of the slat-back chairs made in Philadelphia prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Although slat-back chairs have not been classed as desirable pieces by English collectors, and have for the past two decades been found chiefly in the homes of provincial antiques dealers who used them because they were not readily salable, if one will turn to English genre paintings and prints, particularly of the late 18th Century, plenty of evidence is to be found regarding their wide use at that time. In the famous series Cries of London, by Francis Wheatley, published as prints in 1795, “Old Chairs to Mend” depicts a chair rusher reseating a two-slat chair on the sidewalk before a private residence. His bundle of rush lies on the pavement beside him.
Also, in his companion pictures of rural life, “A Stormy Night” and “Morning After The Storm,” the painter, W. R. Bigg, F. R. A., included a slat-back standing beside the fireplace in each scene. The setting is a farm cottage and the chairs are of the simplest design. These two paintings were published as prints that are dated 1798. From this it can be inferred that slat-backs continued to be made in rural England, chiefly in the northern countries, until after the beginning of the 19th Century.
The ladder-back, sophisticated chair made in London during the Chippendale period, as well as by American cabinetmakers, was clearly derived from the slat-back of the provinces. Here the slats became arched cross members that were carved and pierced, usually four in number, while the turned uprights and stretchers disappeared entirely and an upholstered seat replaced one of rush.
In America, the slat-back chair developed steadily from its 17th-Century memory pieces. The turnings of uprights and cross stretchers became more elaborate and sometimes were more deeply cut. This began with the 18th Century and continued throughout it. At the same time, the turned front and back legs were made more slender and the back finials more decorative, being turned in vase, urn, acorn, and ball forms, with and without a ring turning at the base. Both side and armchairs were made and, with the latter, the arms largely ceased to be round members connecting the front and back uprights.
At first they were made flat on the sides and given a downward curve from back to front with the upper end of the front legs socketed into them. Such arms were very close in design to those used on wainscot chairs of the earlier century, but not so massive.
After this came the arms with a slight but pleasing undulating curve from back to front which terminated in a thicker hand piece where they were affixed to the front legs. These varied in design with the individual chairmaker. Some retained the earlier turned sort and put a large circular button on the upper end of the front legs for finish and for something to grasp when arising from the chair. Likewise, the lower ends of these front legs were generally finished with bun or ball feet, often with a ring turning above them.
In many instances, the front legs were connected by a single stretcher placed halfway between the seat and the floor. It was usually boldly turned with a ring at the center, flanked on either side by ball turnings of the same size. From there it tapered to where it was inserted in the legs but was relieved near the ends by smaller ring turnings. Other slat-backs of this century were made with two front stretchers, some undecorated, others with less pronounced ring, ball, and vase turnings.
It was in the number and shaping of the slats that 18th-Century chairs showed the efforts of their makers towards new details that would be pleasing to the eye. Instead of the three wide slats of the 17th Century, the number increased to as many as six of diminishing width from top to bottom. They had an upper edge cut in an arclike curve and a straight lower edge. Sometimes the curve was very pronounced; at other times less so. In chairs made in Pennsylvania and parts of New Jersey, the slats were cut in a double curve that reached its highest point in the center. Chairs of this section had no ornamental turnings on the back uprights except for the finials, and the stretcher between the front legs was boldly turned in the ring-and-ball pattern.
A few of these slat-back chairs made in Philadelphia are credited to William Savery because one has survived bearing his label on the back of one of the slats which has most, if not all, of the unusual features in its design. These include five or six arched slats, flat arms curving slightly downward at the middle and terminating in blocklike hand holds, and vase turnings of front legs between arms and seat.
Several examples bearing these marks of Savery individuality have been found in which the front legs are of the cabriole type, terminating in strongly executed, uncarved feet. On some, the legs are given added finish by a delicate bevel of the edges. These date from about 1765 to 1775. There are English slat-backs of about this time, or earlier, with similar cabriole legs, but these from Philadelphia are the only ones known to have been made in America.
As stated earlier, the chair with spindles instead of slats, of which two famous examples are the Carver and Brewster chairs, should be considered as variants of the slat-back. Here the replacing spindle construction was taken from the Varangian chair of Byzantine origin that had a triangular seat and a frame of turned uprights and spindles.
Chairs of this type were made in England at the time of Henry VIII. Some were simple of line; others were extremely complicated. However, what happened seems obvious. This spindle turning was incorporated in the slat-back chair with four legs in place of the horizontal members. In the Brewster chair, it also served as sides connecting the arms with a turning in three tiers that extended to the lowest stretchers. Both Carver and Brewster chairs gained their names because many years ago, when first added to the collection in Pilgrim Hall at Plymouth, they were credited with having belonged to Governor Carver and Elder Brewster of the Pilgrim group who settled Plymouth in 1620.
It is now believed that they were made about 1650. According to the account of the founding and early years of Plymouth, written by Governor William Bradford, Governor Carver “died here during the first general sickness” and Elder Brewster “lived here twenty-three or twenty-four years, being about eighty when he died.” Therefore, it is a question whether these famous chairs were ever owned by the men whose names they bear. However, other Carver chairs are well known which were made both in England and in New England outside of Plymouth.
With the coming of the 19th Century, American slat-back chairs began to be less carefully made. The ring, bobbin, and similar turnings that had decorated the uprights, were omitted. Only a vase turning between seat and arm on the front legs and finials on the back ones survived. At the same time, the slats became narrower and were not cut with as pleasing curves. The arms also had less character in their curves.
Finally, there appeared the austerely plain ones of the craftsmen in the various Shaker communities, made first for their own use and later peddled widely by brethren assigned by the elders to find a market for their chairs in excess of their needs. The first Shaker slat-back chairs were probably made at the New Lebanon, New York, colony shortly after 1785. Between then and the beginning of the 19th Century, the management of this and other of their colonies in New England began to sell chairs to neighboring country stores. Then it grew into quite an industry so that their chairs were sold as far from their communities as Boston and New York. Probably they traveled still further on resale as they were made very well and sold for as little as two dollars and fifty cents for an armchair and one dollar for a side chair. In fact, it was these Shakers who first systematically made and used the armchair with rockers — the idea originally being that such chairs were for the use of the old and infirm members of their communities.
By 1850 came the end of handmade Shaker slat-backs when at New Lebanon, the guide for their other colonies, power-driven machinery was installed. The chair design was modified and the industry was put on a factory basis.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.