19th Century Chair Manufacturing
by Dr. Fred D. Johnson
$5 plus $2 S&H
Order online or call the Foundation at 540-882-3018, ext. 117.
· Paperback: Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches
· Publisher: Waterford Foundation (2003)
This 270-page book is filled with photographs, drawings and charts that illustrate the surprising diversity and undeniable skill of local chair manufacturers. While the reader will be immediately captivated by the beauty of the objects that are pictured in this volume, it is very much a “hands on” manual, specifically designed to enable owners of local chairs, rockers and other “specialty pieces” to identify what they have and who made them.
Dr. Johnson’s passion for 19th century furniture, in particular the distinctive acorn finial chairs and rockers that were made in the Waterford area by John Mount, began while attending local country auctions in the early 1970s. He soon realized, however, that the dispersal of these pieces from the homes of their original owners would preclude any possibility of recording their history, or identifying their makers.
To remedy this situation, Dr. Johnson began to photograph and meticulously measure the chairs that he encountered. Each chair was assigned a number that was recorded on a label affixed to a back leg, and the measurements and other data were kept on individual sheets. (To date, he has personally inspected 426 side chairs, 126 armless rockers, 99 arm rockers, 74 plank-seat chairs, 26 child’s chairs and rockers, 6 armed side chairs and 2 benches.) During the hours before auctions, Dr. Johnson frequently attracted a crowd of onlookers eager to witness the documentation process and learn about Loudoun’s rich heritage of local furniture makers. He was always generous in sharing this information, and it was not long before he was being invited into the homes of “old-timers” and collectors to “authenticate” their locally made furniture.
A significant break-through occurred in 1991 when he received permission to inspect William Henry Brown’s former chair manufactory near Hamilton. It had lain undisturbed for almost a century, and provided significant clues on the chair-making process as well as aiding in maker attribution.
In 1994 Dr. Johnson collaborated with Reverend W. Brown Morton to mount an exhibit of 19th century furniture and chairs at the Waterford Foundation’s annual Fair. This show and its accompanying catalogue, Made in Waterford, stimulated interest in local furniture, resulting in a significant increase in demand for so-called “Waterford” chairs and rockers. The publicity and interest generated by the exhibit led to the discovery of many new examples of local furniture and aided the attribution to chair makers in surrounding towns, including Lovettsville, Hamilton, Hillsboro, Middleburg and Ashburn. Dr. Johnson had always intended to make his research available in a more permanent format, but the pace of new discoveries delayed publication until now. Collectors and others interested in local furniture will find the resulting book well worth the wait.
Dr. Johnson begins his book with a brief description of 19th century Loudoun, followed by biographic sketches of the county’s principal chair makers, including reproductions of advertisements that these craftsmen placed in local newspapers. A third chapter introduces the reader to the terminology and construction process used by local chair makers. It includes a step-by-step guide showing the reader how to attribute chairs to individual makers. (More than 90 chair and cabinet-makers known to have been active in the county are listed in an appendix.)
Separate chapters are devoted to descriptions and illustrations of the principal categories: side chairs (both splint seat and plank bottom), mother’s (armless) rockers, arm rockers, children’s chairs and rockers, and “special chairs” (including cane seat federal style chairs, armed side chairs, wagon chairs, highchairs, and benches). The many photographs and line drawings prepared by the author provide the reader with a clear picture of these different types, including styles and techniques attributable to particular makers. Of particular interest are illustrations showing original finishes and painted decoration. The resulting book can best be described as a “labor of love” that was almost thirty years in the making.