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A Chair by Any Other Name: How Some Sitters Got Their Monikers

by Fred Taylor (05/31/13).

This type chair is called a Savonarola chair, an updated version of the Roman curule seat. (Photo: Liveauctioneers.com/Great American Auction)

There are at least three categories of furniture that are so important to us in our daily activities that they have special names. These titles describe a particular characteristic, function or purpose that goes beyond simply specifying a style.

There are lots of kinds of tables—dining, game, tea, end, parlor and lamp—and there are lots of desks—roll top, drop front, spinet, plantation and partner.

And then there are chairs.

If you think about it for a minute, we almost never specify a piece as simply “a chair.” We are looking for a dining chair or a reclining chair or side chair or an armchair or a desk chair. Perhaps we also identify a certain style or from a certain period, but most of the time we classify a chair by its use.

And then there are chairs that are so unique or so remarkable or so tied to a historical event that they are actually labeled by the name of a person closely associated with the chair.

One of the earliest chairs in Western history with a person’s name attached to it is the 15th-century Savonarola chair. Who was Savonarola that he should be famous enough to have a chair named after him?

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian priest with an attitude about change and authority. He was vehemently opposed to the enlightenment of the Renaissance, and he preached against the moral corruption of the clergy including Pope Alexander VI. This was not a healthy time to be a protestor, and he was burned at the stake in 1498 for heresy. But he had a neat chair. It was modeled after the Roman curule campaign chair except that it had a solid seat instead of a fabric seat. It folded like the Roman chair, but it was made of a series of interlocking slats that allowed what looked like a solid chair to be folded for storage or transportation. It looked like the modern version of the “director’s” chair. That type chair is also sometimes called a Dante chair, named after the 14th century poet Dante Alighieri.

The recliner mechanism on this early 20th-century Morris chair is a piece of notch-plate steel attached to the back, rather than arm posts, for support.

In the mid-19th century, an English designer solved a long-standing problem with chairs. In 1866 William Morris adapted a design by a rural chair maker named Ephraim Colman that changed a rigid-back parlor chair to an adjustable reclining chair. He did this amazing feat by using hinges at the base of the back and added a notched support in the rear that held solid rod. The rod supported the weight of the back and it could be moved to different notches to adjust the position of the back. Thus was born the manual recliner—the famous “Morris chair”—even though Morris didn’t actually design it. It could easily have been called the “Colman chair.”

Another case of ambiguous lineage is the platform glider rocker. The glider first appeared in the late 1880s using an iron mechanism that included a swing arm mounted in a frame that allowed the frame of a rocker to gently glide back and forth rather than rocking. The initial patent was awarded to George F. Hall of New York on May 29, 1888. But Hall, for reason unknown, assigned the patent to Peter Lowentraut of Newark, NJ. When it went into production it was called the Lowentraut glider, but the patent applied only to the mechanism itself, not the design of the chair.

By the 1890s another chair of almost identical design using a virtually identical mechanism hit the market. It was called the McLean Patent Rocker made by Biver, Ernster & Co. of Chicago. Six models of this piece were advertised in Montgomery Ward’s 1895 catalog. So the glider could have been a “Hall glider,” a “Lowentraut glider” or a “McLean glider.”

This Rococo Revival rocker is very similar to the one in which President Abraham Lincoln was sitting when he was assassinated. (Photo: LiveAuctioneers.com/Clars Auction Gallery)

Another rocker has no such ambiguity associated with the name. That is the Lincoln rocker. In the mid-19th century, men were not seen in public in rocking chairs. Rocking chairs were considered to be feminine chairs uniquely suited to the special needs of women. They were generally limited to private use at home.

But President Abraham Lincoln was reported to have numerous aches and pains and found a large-scale rocker to be a comfort. On the infamous night he went to Ford’s Theatre, he requested a rocker in his box. The only one available was a Rococo Revival Grecian style chair located in theatre owner John T. Ford’s private rooms. Ford had his own chair placed in Lincoln’s private box, and this was the chair Lincoln was seated in when he was assassinated. Thus the Lincoln rocker was born.

The chair had a long journey after that. Still stained with what was then thought to be Lincoln’s blood, it went to the office of the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to be used as evidence in the trial of the conspirators. When Stanton retired, it went to the Smithsonian. It took many years and several lawsuits before Mrs. Harry Ford, wife of John Ford’s brother, could recover the chair she claimed belonged to the Ford family. She was finally awarded the chair in 1929. It was sold at auction immediately for $2,400 to an agent of Henry Ford’s museum in Dearborn, MI. Henry Ford was no relation to Harry or John T. Ford. The chair remains in the Henry Ford Museum today, having resisted several attempts by the National Parks Service to take it away. You can see the original chair online.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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