“3 black Windsor chairs, $45”

“Solid wooden Windsor furniture was also in great demand. Shapely, strong, and comfortable, it have been popular since the middle of the eighteenth century.”

Rose Standish Nichols,“Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture,” House Beautiful, 1909.

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Image published in “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture”

The American Windsor chair has had a presence in homes and public buildings since the eighteenth century. These handcrafted chairs, often the work of the wheelwright rather than the carpenter, are characterized by spindle backs, turned legs, and steam-bent “hoops” that were socketed together without hardware. The solid wood seats were often carved or “saddled” to be more comfortable, and the turned spindles and steam-bent features were often a different type of wood than the carved seats, making painted Windsor chairs very common [1].

While Windsor chairs received their name from a leading market village in seventeenth century England, the style quickly spread to America and became iconic in the northeast. Nicknamed the “Philadelphia chair,” after the chair’s major manufacturing city in America, the Windsor chair claimed a prominent place in the political history of the United States when Thomas Jefferson sat in his Windsor writing chair and penned the Declaration of Independence[2][3].

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Windsor writing chair [4]
As the style moved throughout the Northeast, several different styles emerged, from smaller children’s chairs, to settees, to early rocking chairs.[5] The chairs, in their many styles and forms, became common for for use private homes as well as public spaces including the Pennsylvania State House [6], and the Boston Public Library [7].

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Marian Nichols’ bedroom showing a Windsor rocking chair, ca. 1920
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Postcard from Rose Nichols’ collection showing Windsor arm chairs at the Boston Athenaeum

Rose Nichols’ interest in the Windsor style is well documented in her 1909 House Beautiful article, “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” While she suggests in her article that they may not be “fancy” enough for a formal parlor, she writes that they are “appropriate for the library.” She also notes that “for furnishing a piazza nothing surpasses Windsor chairs and settees.”[8] Several postcards from Rose’s collection also boast Windsor chairs in interior images, including scenes of libraries, bedrooms, entry halls, and even kitchens.

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A postcard from Rose Nichols’s collection showing a Windsor chair in a study
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A postcard from Rose Nichols’ collection showing three Windsor chairs in a kitchen

Rose’s collection includes four, black “bow-back” Windsor armchairs, a style that was common at the turn of the nineteenth century.

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One of Rose’s four Windsor chairs

Despite her appreciation for Windsor chairs, it is unclear where Rose’s set of four chairs belonged. Throughout the years, the chairs were documented in three different places. In a photo from the early twentieth century, the four chairs were placed on the piazza at the Nichols family’s summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. In Rose’s 1935 inventory of the furnishings at her 55 Mount Vernon Street home, “3 black Windsor chairs” are listed in the library. However, the oral histories from her caretaker, Mary King, from the late 1950s suggest that they were used in the kitchen. Although it is unknown where Rose would have permanently housed these four chairs, all three of the documented locations do align with her published advice regarding the use of painted furniture.

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Rose Nichols’ 1935 inventory of her furnishings including “3 black Windsor Chairs $45”

 

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Elizabeth Nichols (left) and friends, seated on the four chairs on the piazza of the family’s summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire.

These four “shapely, strong, and comfortable” chairs may have had a somewhat nomadic life with the Nichols family, however they represent Rose’s interest in interior design and furniture as well as American history. Though the Windsor chair was originally designed in England, its evolution through early America and associations with Philadelphia at the time of America’s founding, makes it an iconic example of American furniture. Rose Nichols understood this rich history and shared it, both through her written work and the preservation of her collection.

 

[1]Ormsbee, Thomas H. Field Guide to Early American Furniture. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. 91-95. Print.

[2]Butler, Joseph T., Kathleen Eagen. Johnson, and Ray Skibinski. Field Guide to American Antique Furniture. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1985. 44-45. Print.

[3]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” House Beautiful. February, 1909. 54-56. Print.

[4]Ormsbee, Thomas H. Field Guide to Early American Furniture. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. 101. Print.

[5] Ibid. 91

[6]Osborne, Harold. The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. 830. Print.

[7]Nichols, Rose Standish. “Some Good Specimens of Old-Fashioned Painted Furniture.” House Beautiful. February, 1909. 54-56. Print.

[8]Ibid. 56.

By Emma Welty, Curatorial and Administrative Specialist