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
- elm (for the seat)
- beech (for turnings)
Woods Used in North American Windsor Chairs
- tulip, poplar or pine (for the seat)
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.
- Fan-Back Windsor
- Gothic Windsor Chair
- American Bow-Back Windsor Armchair
- Windsor Brace-Back Chairs
- 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!
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.