amy azzarito by 26

past & present: windsor chair history + resources


Illustration by Julia Rothman

If you look at the chair above and think “Thanksgiving” or “apple picking in New England,” there’s a good reason for that! While the Windsor chair may evoke a New England country B&B, as the name suggests, the form is actually English. In 18th-century England, the chairs were used in the Windsor castle garden. They soon became popular garden seats throughout the country and were often painted green or simply left to weather. By the late 1750s, the English Windsor chair was ubiquitous indoors as well as outdoors and would have been used everywhere from inns and taverns to libraries and meeting houses.


Images above, from top: This ca. 1739 drawing by Jacques Rigaud shows a lord and lady being wheeled through the garden in Windsor chairs (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress by Edward Savage (from the Library of Congress).

Now let’s address that “American as apple pie” sensation you may get from looking at these chairs. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s two words: founding fathers. In North America, the Windsor chair form was first used in Philadelphia where the chair became hugely popular around the time of the Revolution. The chairs were such an important part of the life in the new country that Thomas Jefferson was said to have written the Declaration of Independence in one of these chairs and Martha Washington had needlework cushions made for her bow-back Windsor chairs. (Oh and that’s Benjamin Franklin sitting in one above!)

One of the major selling points of the Windsor chair was its portability. Light and easy to carry to from room to room, it was extremely popular in both England and in North America. The Windsor chair is made from multiple woods — the legs were hardwood, while the seats were a soft wood. (Necessary for that lightness factor.) The main design difference between the English and American versions is the use of a splat (that middle piece in the back of the chair) in British chairs while Americans preferred the low-back Windsor.

Woods Used in British Windsor Chairs

  • ash
  • yew
  • fruitwoods
  • elm (for the seat)
  • beech (for turnings)

Woods Used in North American Windsor Chairs

  • hickory
  • chestnut
  • oak
  • ash
  • tulip, poplar or pine (for the seat)

Images above from left: English Wheelback Windsor Arm Chair, $2250; English Windsor in Elm.


Just for fun here are a few different types of Windsor chairs. The classic Windsor is the bow-back. There are two bow-back versions above.

  1. Fan-Back Windsor
  2. Gothic Windsor Chair
  3. American Bow-Back Windsor Armchair
  4. Windsor Brace-Back Chairs
  5. Bow-Back Windsor Side Chair

Books to Read
Chairs — There are plenty of books on Windsor chairs but if you’re as chair-crazy as I am, this is the book for you — there’s a little bit about nearly every chair you can imagine. This is my favorite book of the moment!

CLICK HERE for Windsor chair sourcing information!


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So now that you know the history of the Windsor chair, the real question is, how do you get your own? Here are three ways that you can bring a little Americana into your home.

Image above: Sneak Peek: Laura Zindel.

While you’re unlikely to actually start collecting Windsor chairs, you never know what you might turn up in a flea market or thrift store. And although most of the time you’re not going to be stumbling upon 18th-century Windsor chairs (a girl can dream, right?), here are some tips for recognizing the real thing, but just in case:

1. Period Windsor chairs, when they were new, were painted — they were frequently made from different types of wood and the paint tied the pieces together. Obviously, original paint on a chair would greatly increase its value!

2. Chairs made of poplar — a locally-grown Pennsylvania tree — could be an indication that the chair was an early Philadelphia example.

    Images above: 1. English Windsor Chair, ca 1750, $4,850; 2. Pair of Early 19th c. Rodback Windsor Side Chairs, $3,350; Antique English Windsor Chair; 4. Twenty Four Early 19th-Century Style English Windsor Chairs, $2600; 5. 19th c Spindle Back Windsor Chair, $1250


    There are a couple of different options for purchasing new Windsor chairs: You can buy mass-market versions of the chair (if I was going this route, I’d sand the chair down and paint them a bright fun color). If your budget allows, you could also purchase a chair from a local craftsperson (I love the option above with the writing arm and the drawer — so cool!) See this Regional List of Windsor Chair Makers to find someone near you. Two of my favs are Windsor chair shop in Pennsylvania and Windsor chair makers in Lincolnville, Maine.

    Images above: 1. Madison Park Tall Spindleback Chair, $100; 2.Windsor Chair, set of two, $65; 3. Windsor Chair with Comb, Writing Arm and Drawer, $1,480; 4. Windsor Hoopback, $699; 5. Continuous Arm Chair with Green Milk Paint, $1090


    If you don’t want to go on the thrift-store hunt or buy a new Windsor chair, you could make your own! While this might be a little more difficult than the average DIY project, there seems to be no shortage of Windsor chair making instructors. You can also attend workshops like the American Windsor Chair Workshop which is located an hour north of Ashville, North Carolina. (Not to get sidetracked but they also have classes in everything from coppering to cooking!)

    Good luck on your Windsor chair hunt!

    Images above: Windsor Chair resources.

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    26 Comments

    Kate St. Pierre

    I enjoyed your artical on Windsor chairs.
    I work for Warren Chair Works, a small company that specializes in making 18th century Windsor chair reproductions.
    It’s interesting to see all of the different Windsor styles and how they have evolved over time. We have recently come out with a more modern Windsor style chair that pairs contrasting woods – Walnut with Tiger Maple or Cherry with Tiger Maple, and have a dealer O & G Studio who paints our traditional and modern chairs crazy fun colors.

    Sarah

    If you’re interested in Windsor chairs, you might also check out Jock Jones (http://www.jockswindsors.com/). I’ve met him and he welcomed me into his studio (a small shop in an even smaller town). He’s very nice and his chairs are beautiful.

    Casey

    My parents have a chair just like #3 in the “types” section. For some reason I’ve never really noticed it until just recently. I’ve got my eye on it… :)

    carolina

    No matter how cute the imagery for Windsor, its still in my opinion the worst chair as far as style goes.

    sorry guys, i just cant get into this one!

    Keighley

    What a fantastic POST!!! I love the history behind windsor, queen anne, and Louis XVI chairs.

    Love love love love the post.

    sarah

    I’m so happy about this post! I recently picked up a Windsor chair at my local flea market for 30 bucks (guess they aren’t as popular as an eames these days, eh?). A metal label on the bottom says it was made by the Paine Furniture Co. in Boston. A little research put it in the 1920s or 30s era. love the little nod to old-fashioned americana it gives my home.

    Caroline

    I really liked this post — thanks for using lots of illustrations and descriptions :)

    Would you believe, I found one of these chairs dumped on the side of the road last week! I really loved the design and promptly brought it home. But I had no idea it was so iconic.

    I was thinking of sanding it back and painting it canary yellow, but now that I know about its history, maybe I’ll try something that ties in its history.

    Jill

    thanks for this article! I would love to see more of these short informational bits on design– furniture styles, architectural terms, etc.

    Luke

    I agree with Jill there. I was stoked to come across this article. Would love to see more info on specific furniture or design styles etc.

    Mags

    A modern British descendant of the original chairs is produced by Ercol.

    Their pre-1960s furniture is becoming collectable, as a blend of traditional and modernist design.

    Kim Schweitzer

    UH! I’ve lusted after the Bow-Back Windsor Side Chair for years! I met an artisan who make them all by hand using old fashioned tools and they are superb. They are also a fortune. One fine day my dinning room table shall be decorated with them. One day.

    olivia

    i love the past and present features – so informative and such a great idea. they really round out d*s. thanks for this!

    Kay Douglas

    It’s great to bring awareness to classic design like this. A few comments:

    1. The earliest American Windsor chair known is a red-painted Philadelphia example that dates from about 1720. (For the connoisseurs: It has style characteristics of William and Mary chairs.)

    2. In general, Windsor chairs were made of usually three different woods for structural and design reasons. The legs and stretchers were a hard wood that could be lathe-turned to create sharp edges (maple, walnut, cherry, etc.). The seats were a soft wood because they had to be carved into a “saddle” shape. The spindles were hickory, shaped with a spoke shave, because hickory can bend without breaking. Then the whole chair was painted green, black, red or sometimes blue to unify the design.

    3. There’s a lot more to learn. Here’s an Amazon link to the definitive book on American Windsor chairs: http://tiny.cc/48ead

    Sharona

    I love this article! I am in my first year of furniture design in London and our first project is to design a Windsor chair. I will be surrounded by tiny chopstick models of these for the next few weeks…thank you so much for this great resource (and ideas)!

    Mesha Flynn

    Thank you for making a fifth grade history project so much easier!

    Laurie Hammons

    Just finished making 3 bowback side chairs and an armchair from kits from WoodWerks Supply. It was a lot of fun, challenging but not too difficult, and they look great. The staff was very helpful when I had questions. The kits are not cheap, but much less than buying the finished chair, and a lot more exciting.
    http://www.woodwerks.com

    Markey

    loved this post! I have two bow back Windsor chairs I’d like to use in my family room… Do you have any suggestions how to make a seat cushions that won’t make the chairs look ‘country’? Pretty please respond with any ideas or tips! I’d love to hear from you

    Lisa

    My Grandmother born in 1914 lost her father as a little girl and only had one memory of him. He was seated in his Windsor chair reading. She walked over to him, he pulled her to his lap and kept reading. She knew to be very still or he would put her down.

    Jason

    Found a nice looking American Bow-Back Windsor at a estate sales with a logo that has a
    N S stamped into the shape of chair on the bottom. Can anyone identify that manufacture and possible age?

    Krista

    Found a rockng chari with a logo that has a N S stamped into the shape of chair on the bottom. Can anyone identify that manufacture and possible age?

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