Windsor Chairs – American

Two English Windsor Stools, 19th Century

p4A ItemID F7941213
A pair of New England bow-back Windsor chairs, 19th century

p4A ItemID F7941188
Four bowback and two braceback Windsor chairs by D.R. Dimes of New Hampshire

p4A ItemID F7938334
A triple-bow Windsor bench in black and red paint by D.R. Dimes of New Hampshire, late 20th century

p4A ItemID F7938333

American Windsor Chairs

Windsor chairs of the 18th and 19th Century are often depicted in American folk paintings of the same period. They are colorful, plentiful, and come in many styles. Carved mahogany Chippendale furniture of this period and later the more elegant inlaid Federal furniture was for only the very wealthiest consumers; however, Windsor furniture was available to the middle and lower classes because it was relatively inexpensive. The best antique Windsor furniture today is valued not only for its practicality, but for the dynamic, sculptural qualities of its silhouette.

It is unclear why this painted style of furniture made with mixed woods is referred to as “Windsor”. Jonathan Fairbanks, a noted furniture scholar, believes that the style originated around Windsor Castle in England in the first quarter of the 18th Century, and was brought to the colonies by the turners and wheelwrights (as opposed to cabinetmakers) traveling to the New World. English examples usually have pierced splats instead of the spindled American variety.

In general, late 18th century American Windsor chairs consist of turned cylindrical spindles and baluster-turned legs fitted into a shaped plank seat. The fact that there is little carving and that the legs and spindles can be turned on a lathe made the form ideal for mass production and thus low price. Elements were all made of local woods, nothing needed to be imported. Fairbanks notes that chair supplies were as readily available as the closest field that needed clearing, as most parts were made of thin, young saplings that could be easily bent. Turned elements were made of maple, a hard wood that would ensure crisp lines. Seats were made of softer woods such as pine or tulip poplar that were easily shaped. The crest rails and spindles would be of ash, oak or hickory, all strong woods, that when young could be arched without splitting.

Once all the elements had been fitted together (by “plugging” the vertical elements into the seat), the whole would be painted, first with a light undercoat and then most typically with a dark green, although other colors (usually red, yellow, or black with gold highlights) were used in the 19th century. Very few examples exist today with their original paint. Windsor chairs were frequently used outdoors and have typically been repainted many times since the 18th or 19th centuries. The rarity of a Windsor chair with original paint (or even traces thereof) will increase its price substantially.

Windsor chairs are first recorded as being in Philadelphia during the early 18th century. While some chairs are branded beneath the plank seat (increasing their value in today’s market tremendously), most are unmarked by the maker. The earliest forms recorded are high-back (sometimes called comb-back) and fan-back forms. High-backs have a spindled chair back that rises above the head height, usually topped by a curved flat crest-rail with carved volutes. A fan-back would have two turned stiles or posts flanking the cylindrical spindles. Both high-back and fan-back varieties sometimes had the added support and rigidity of two back braces rising behind the spindles. Writing-arm Windsors, with one armrest ending in a desk-top surface, are usually high-backed. These are less desirable in today’s market because they are less useful in today’s living room. Quality and collector desirability are again determined by the presence or absence of a branded name from the maker, the vigor of the turning, the splay of the leg, and the quality of the paint surface.

Slightly later, the low-back Windsor became popular. This style is the only one without a “bent” or arched component. It is patterned after the English corner chairs, and is probably the sturdiest and heaviest Windsor. These had a shaped crest-rail that rose to mid-back; cylindrical spindles; a flattened arm rest above turned arm supports, over a shaped-U seat on baluster-turned legs joined by a stretcher. The form is not rare, but there are huge disparities in the “good, better, best” world of collecting. The best examples, and therefore most desirable today, will have shaped “knuckles” terminating the arm rest, quirky and robust baluster-turnings to the legs, a dynamic splay to the legs, and an old (if not original) paint surface.

Sack-back armchairs, bow-back armchairs and bow-back side chairs have a hoop-shaped piece of bent wood connecting the spindles, rather than a crest rail. These chairs were very popular during the late 18th century, superceding the high-back or fan-back models. John Kassey notes that judging from the number of bow-back chairs extant, these were probably the most popular of all the Windsor styles. A sack-back chair will have a horizontal spindle bisecting the back spindles, ending in arm rests. A bow-back does not have this horizontal element: the arched hoop can flow into the arm supports (known as a continuous-bow armchair, popular in New York), or can have separate applied armrests.

19th century Windsor chairs are treasured not for their idiosyncratic turnings and sculptural qualities, but more for their detailed and colorful “fancy” painting and decoration. Bamboo-turning became very popular (probably due to trade with the Orient) during the first quarter of this century. These have a more mechanical silhouette, and they become more uniform rather than one-of-a-kind. Colors brighten with reds, yellows, and whites joining the more practical dark green. The most desirable 19th century Windsors have a good, original paint surface undimmed by varnish or overpaint. It is still possible to find sets of dining side chairs that are sold together. These sets are very desirable.

Popular styles during the 19th century include the rod-back side chair which has a more square silhouette and a cylindrical crestrail (sometimes doubled or “bird-cage”), which could center a painted medallion. These are almost always bamboo-turned and joined by a box stretcher.

It is worth noting that many Windsor chairs come in specialized forms. Because they were cheap and relatively easy to manufacture it was possible for a cabinetmaker to serve special needs. Rocking chairs, high chairs, cradles, and child-size chairs would all fit into this category.

Comfortable, utilitarian, portable, colorful and strong, Windsor chairs became ubiquitous in America during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Their durability extends even to this day, and the styles live on in reproductions as well. Collectors should always search for the best examples from the many available, concentrating on sculptural silhouette and condition of the original paint.

Further Recommended Reading

Evans, Nancy G., American Windsor Furniture: Specialized Forms, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1997.

Fairbanks, Jonathan & Bates, Elizabeth, American Furniture: 1620 To the Present, Richard Marek Publishers, NY, 1981.

Kassay, John, The Book of American Windsor Furniture: Styles and Technologies, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1998.

Reference note by p4A contributing editor Jan W. Hack.


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