The History of Windsor Chairs
Windsor chairs and the founding of the American nation go together like a hand and glove. Both encompass a century of time between 1750 and 1850, with the first half of the century being the formative years. Of our founding fathers, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison are known to have had many windsors. Windsors were the chair of choice during that period; they were light, strong and inexpensive.
The center of the American windsor chair world was Philadelphia, the colonies major port and manufacturing city. Craftsmen like Thomas Gilpin, Francis Trumble and Joseph Henzey, all Philadelphia craftsmen, were the early deacons of the American windsor style. They had shops around Elfreth’s Alley, close to the Delaware River waterfront where they and other Philadelphia craftsmen could ship their wares to other colonies and West Indies. Joseph Henzey built the windsor chairs for the First Continental Congress. In the Pennsylvania State House, where the Constitutional Convention was held, Francis Trumble made the windsors used by the delegates. Unfortunately, the windsors used in Assembly Hall during the debate and signing of the Declaration of Independence were used for firewood by the British during their occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78.
The American windsor chair evolved from its English “forefathers” but developed its own unique style. Turned arm posts replaced the English curved and carved ones. A low back chair was introduced. The splay of the turned legs was more exaggerated and styles on the legs and stretchers became regional identifiers. Comb-back windsors were notability Philadelphian and the continuous arm windsor uniquely New York. Craftsmen became identified with particular chairs and elements; Thomas Gilpin was known for his canister leg turnings and the high-back chair design, Samuel Moon had a serpentine crest rail and Joseph Henzey for the sack-back chair [one of the largest collections of his work can be found at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia].
Windsors have many looks. The one we most notable identify with “Independence Hall” is the sack-back windsor [supposedly named because sometimes a ‘sack’ was placed over the back of the chair to prevent cold drafts from affecting the occupant]. A more generic definition of a windsor is a chair where the legs and back are imbedded in its seat; i.e., the seat is the central structure of the chair and all other elements of the chair are housed in and protrude from it. Most other types of chairs have the legs and back attached to the side of the seat; effectively they are boxes. Windsors are more graceful in that they are non-square in form. American windsors were made from a variety of wood so that the particular attributes of each species could be used to advantage. Seats were made of popular or pine because they were lightweight and provided carve-ability. The legs and turned parts were made of hard maple for its strength. The crest rails, arm bows and spindles were made from oak, hickory or ash for its bend ability. Due to the use of these diverse wood types and in order to blend them into an esthetically pleasing piece of furniture, paint was used to disguise wood differences and homogenize the chair. Green was the predominate color, followed in the post Revolutionary War period, by black.
In the early part of the 19th century, windsor chairmaking experienced the effects of the industrial revolution. There was a transition from hand production methods to machines and windsors lost a lot of their craftsman identity. The bamboo style leg became more commonplace, not only due to the Oriental influence on style but because they were less intricate in design and easier to mass produce. Slat back and tablet back chairs became popular because they had an enlarged back or crest rail surface on which pastoral scenes could be painted and as such, present more of an artisan appearance to a mass produced chair.