The top image shows a correct period Hitchcock stencil from the 1820s. The lower image with the backward “N’s” is reproduction made since 1952.
Everyone knows what a Hitchcock chair is, right? The small, rickety chairs with the rush or cane seats, usually painted black with lots of leaves and flowers and fruit painted all over it. Sometimes they have solid seats that show a dark natural wood surrounded by black paint and gold stripes and more leaves painted on the top of the back rail. Often the chairs will have gold stripes and gold banding painted around the legs. They are important for that “early American” look in decorating circles. Sometimes the chairs are even signed by Hitchcock with the name of the town in Connecticut on the rear rail.
But even if it is signed, how do you know if it is a “real” Hitchcock chair? Anybody can sign a chair, and if it is signed, does that mean it is old? How old? A little history can solve all the questions about Hitchcock chairs.
Lambert Hitchcock was born in 1795 in Cheshire, Conn. to a family that had come to the Colonies 160 years earlier. By 1814 he was apprenticed to Silas Cheney of Litchfield as a woodworker and by 1818 he had moved to a small community in the township of Barkhamsted known as Fork-of-the-Rivers at the junction of the Farmington and Still Rivers. The settlement was little more than an accumulation of log cabins and a sawmill, but Hitchcock saw promise there and went to work in the sawmill owned by some family acquaintances.
While working with Silas Cheney, Hitchcock had been influenced by the work of Eli Terry, the legendary clock maker who designed cheap wooden works to replace expensive brass works for his clocks in order to reach a wider market. To produce his wooden works in sufficient quantity to make it worthwhile, Terry devised an assembly line process of cutting and assembling the various parts. Hitchcock wanted to do the same thing with chairs.
In a small shed attached to the sawmill and tapping into the mill’s power source, Hitchcock began to turn out a small number of unfinished individual chair components. He sold these to Yankee traders who sold them to mercantile stores as replacement parts for broken chairs. His business was so successful he had to hire extra help. His output eventually became so great that he expanded his market to the South, shipping great quantities of chair parts to Charleston, S.C. for further distribution. But he still had the dream of producing complete, finished chairs. In 1820-21 he acquired an existing wooden two-story building near the sawmill and began to produce the ubiquitous “Hitchcock” chair. The design was loosely based on the popular Sheraton style of the time but also included some ideas from Empire chairs and the famous “Baltimore” chairs.
Most of the chairs were painted black or dark green and were decorated by a process using stencils and rubbing a bronzing powder into a tacky finish coat. The result was a lustrous design that came to signify Hitchcock’s work. Pin striping was done with paint, though never in gold. Striping was of yellow ocher. Gold was reserved for the banding, which went only half way around the turns in the legs. By 1825 the company had a new home in a spacious three-story brick factory, built near the old one. And Hitchcock had started labeling his chairs with an identifying stencil. Since he employed almost everyone in the town, the town changed its name to “Hitchcocks-ville” and he used that as part of his signature.
The earliest Hitchcock stencil read “L.HITCHCOCK. HITCHCOCKS-VILLE. CONN. WARRANTED”. But here’s the catch. Unlike most Hitchcock stencils you may have seen, the original stencil DID NOT have the “N’s” backward in “CONN”. That little glitch did not appear until 1832, when the company, after a run of bad luck, had been through receivership and emerged in a new corporate form known as the Hitchcock, Alford Company. The “Alford” was Arba Alford, Hitchcock’s brother-in-law. During this phase of production, the first stencils with backward “N’s” appeared, not really surprising when the bulk of the work was done by laborers who could not read or write. They didn’t see the difference. While not all chairs from this period had the oddity, many did. That stencil read “HITCHCOCK.ALFORD & Co. HITCHCOCKSVILLE.CONN. WARRANTED”. This company was dissolved in 1843 and Hitchcock started a new chair company in Unionville, Conn. and his stencils had that town’s name in them thereafter. Hitchcock died in 1852.
In 1946 John Tarrant Kenney began to revive the company and in 1952 received the right to use the trademarked Hitchcock signature. Before it closed in 2006 (here’s some history) the new Hitchcock Chair Company was once again in full swing, stenciling chairs in the original styling and using the wording of the original label. With two small differences. The modern company’s “L.HITCHCOCK…” stencil uses the backward “N’s”, something never seen in the original label. The other disparity is the presence of the circled “R” of the trademark registration of the name, something which did not exist in Hitchcock’s day.
So if the “Hitchcock” chair you have seen has a stencil which includes the terms “L.HITCHCOCK” and “HITCHCOCKS-VILLE” but also includes the backward “N’s” in “CONN” and “WARRANTED” it is a reproduction made since 1952. That was easy wasn’t it?
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.
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