The “American” Legend of the Rocking Chair
The American Boston rocker. Note the distinctive rolled seat of this mid-19th century example.
As Americans, we have a lot to be proud about in the field of furniture. We perfected the English idea of the Windsor chair. We developed several new styles like American Neoclassical, and the forms of furniture we have conjured up are almost limitless. But one thing for which we smugly congratulate ourselves is definitely not of our own making.
In the 1928 book “The Rocking Chair: An American Institution,” authors Walter A. Dyer and Esther S. Fraser not only give America credit for the rocking chair, they specifically assign its invention to Benjamin Franklin. The authors’ date the first American rocker to 1774 and the first European rocker to 1840.
Old Ben invented a lot of things, like bifocal glasses and the electric kite, but today—some 80 years since their book published—there’s very strong evidence that neither did he, nor did any other American, invent the rocking chair.
The first recorded use of curved “skates” applied to stationary furniture was in the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. The curved wooden pieces were attached to cradles to hasten sleep. Cradles like this were much easier to make than the predecessor, a cradle hollowed out of a log with a round bottom so that it could rock. The first use of the term “rocker” was not applied to the mobile cradle but to the person in charge of the motion—the rocker.
But for 300 years no one apparently thought to apply those same curved appliances to regular chairs—or did they?
The book “The American Chair 1630-1890” by Marion Day Iverson hints all around the Franklin rumor, citing the same sources used by Dyer and Fraser, but she concedes that chairs with rockers on them appeared much earlier. She states that true rockers originally designed to be rocking chairs were only those originally made with legs large enough and strong enough to receive the application of rockers. She presents one chair that meets that requirement, a heavy legged slat back rocker from 17th-century New England—well before Ben’s time.
There is also evidence of an English Yorkshire chair made in 1630 being fitted with added rockers in 1710. There is even a six-legged Swedish rocker called the “gungstol” that was designed as a rocker and was made as early as 1740.
But never mind who invented it, the idea of rocking furniture became immensely popular. After the Revolutionary War, many chair makers and cabinetmakers advertised the adding of rockers in their standard bill of fare, although it seems that not many people were making rocking chairs from scratch. One exception was the chair maker named William Seaver. He worked in Boston 1790 to 1803, making both Windsor rocking cradles and Windsor rocking chairs, such as the one seen on page 117 of “Field Guide to American Antique Furniture” by Joseph T. Butler.
After the turn of the 19th century, the more formal Federal and, later, Empire styles did not lend themselves well to the rocking chair, but the earlier popular Windsor was practically custom-made for the idea. The Windsor became the rocker of the early 19th century, often with painted decorations similar to that of the fancy Sheraton chairs made popular by Lambert Hitchcock.
This is the Swedish version of the rocker, the six legged “gungstol.” While the original model premiered around 1740, this one is a later production featuring the same rolled seat as the 19th-century Boston rocker. (photo: Auktionshuset/LiveAuctioneers.com)
Around 1825, a Windsor variation called the Boston rocker appeared on the scene. By this time, the American Windsor had evolved way past its English ancestry to become a purely American form, losing the hoop back and acquiring a rectangular or shaped crest rail. The Boston coupled that with a very comfortable sculpted seat that rose high in the back and rolled off in the front. The chairs were not made only in Boston, and there is confusion about why the chairs are called by the city’s name.
Many chair makers in New England made variations of the Boston, including Lambert Hitchcock. But there is no confusion about the popularity of the chair. Antiques researcher and author Helen Comstock notes in her book “American Furniture,” “The popularity of the Boston rocker has possibly taken it into more American homes than any other type chair.”
That’s a pretty strong statement for a chair that was generally used by only the one gender. Men of the Victorian era were never seen to be in rocking chairs, at least not in public. Rockers were for women who otherwise were advised to sit still, be quiet and fold their hands in their lap. The rocking chair was an outlet. Rockers were even eventually added to the one of the most strictly enforced Victorian mores: the ritual of the parlor set.
Of course there are few obvious anomalies to that general gender rule. Abraham Lincoln was sitting in a Rococo Revival rocker when he was assassinated in Ford’s Theater, Napoleon kept one in his villa in Italy and social iconoclast Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was very much a fan of his rocker. It wasn’t until the chair came out—to the porch—that men were generally seen comfortably ensconced in them. It seemed that being outside was different from being in the parlor with all of its associated rules and mores.
By the 20th century, rocking-chair use was universal and eclectic, a favorite of generals and presidents as well as working people with aching backs. The form has inspired possibly more creative designs than any other form of furniture. All it has to do is rock safely and be comfortable. Everything after that is just design enthusiasm.
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