James Wilson, Pennsylvania Chairmaker
By Donald L. Tuttle and Joyce Baudin, Illustrations by Linda Scharf-Jones
Chairmaking in small shops in eastern Pennsylvania reached its peak shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century and before the close of the century had given away completely to the competition of mass production and large scale operations. In western Pennsylvania, however, the fruits of volume production and the latest styles took longer to disseminate, and small shops like the one James Wilson operated at Taylorstown, Buffalo Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, for nearly six decades, continued to thrive, serving the needs of the local community.
The chair of choice manufactured in James Wilson’s shop appears to have been the plank-bottom, “common” arrow back chair, about three feet high, four arrows in the back, rounds or stretchers on each side and at the back, below the seat, and with a shaped stretcher in front. Wilson’s process of finishing chairs seems to conform to a general pattern, excepting some variations he found helpful or time saving. Usually the raw wood was primed with Venetian red mixed with oil. Over this was applied a finish coat of various colors, or grained to simulate more expensive rosewood or mahogany. Decorative designs were usually applied by means of paper stencils and free-hand striping on the seat and posts. Stencils of Wilson’s which have survived were cut from account book paper. Because of the relatively fragile nature of the paper, many of his designs are prickpunched to facilitate copying and making new stencils. Extant examples of Wilson’s chairs and his patterns preserved in his shop show he also made Boston rockers, high chairs, child’s rockers, settees and various other plank-bottom chairs with lyre and fiddle-shaped splats. It appears Wilson never made rush-seat chairs more often found in New England and the Western Reserve of Ohio. One author contends plank-bottom chairs were fairly limited to makers who had learned chairmaking in Philadelphia and there became skilled in making this type of chair. Family records show Wilson was trained in Philadelphia; this may account for his penchant for the plank-bottom style.
James Wilson was born on May 9, 1826 in Buffalo Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, of second-generation Irish parents. In 1846, he began an apprenticeship in Philadelphia, studying chairmaking and ornamental work for a number of years. A page from Wilson’s account book for this period now in the Meadowcroft Village collections records the following notation for his ornamenting chairs:
It is unfortunate that the account book does not offer us more on his period as a young apprentice in Philadelphia – it was heavily cut later to provide paper for stencils and little else remains but some pages of copybook exercises in ornamental penmanship. A number of rococo ornament designs with a strong Philadelphia Chippendale influence among his papers hints that he trained with a master furniture maker. And the fact that Wilson’s tools include several firmer and mortise chisels stamped “James Cam”, a Sheffield toolmaker reported as out of business in 1833 (while Wilson was still in his childhood in western Pennsylvania), suggests that he may have acquired them from relatives years later when he came to Philadelphia.
By 1852, Wilson had returned to Buffalo Township, married a Rebecca Wilson of Bridgeport, Ohio in 1855, and a year later purchased a 100′ x 124′ lot in Taylorstown already containing a single story brick house and a weatherboarded log house one and a half stories high. The log “house” became James’ chair shop which stood on Lot #40, Main Street until it was moved to Meadowcroft Village and restored in 1969.
It is probable that the small log building had been built originally as a shop and never intended to be a residence. Constructed in the l830’s it contains no fireplace and probably was always heated with a stove. Chairs were constructed on the first floor which contained a large foot treadle lathe and two long work benches. A ladder was used on the end of one bench to reach the loft where chairs were painted .and decorated. The ceiling of the loft is covered with stenciled patterns, sign letters and freehand designs which James Wilson, and later his son DeForrest, who worked with him on house and sign painting, tried out before finishing a piece of work. A small storage shed attached to the rear of the shop provided a place to work out wood in the rough.
The fancier styles of Philadelphia chairmakers seem to have influenced Wilson very little. His way of life probably left him with virtually no leisure in which to study and, perhaps by choice but probably from necessity to augment the family income, he worked at other trades or occupations during the slack seasons: housepainting, signpainting, graining of woodwork, decoration of the interiors of local churches, and occasionally coffin-making occupied his time, in addition to his chairmaking business.
And there were other factors that had a bearing on his production. One was the prospective local market, including his own and other families in Taylorstown (many plank-bottom chairs and settees still in the possession of older Taylorstown families can be traced by patterns and styles to Wilson’s handiwork) and also a larger market in Washington and Claysville on the National Road, available within practical hauling distance by horse and wagon. Maple or hickory could be cut from nearby woodlots; poplar trees for splats and planks purchased from a sawmill. Powdered paint pigments such as Venetian red, yellow ochre and lamp black, were probably purchased in Claysville; Wilson’s letters and receipts indicate he purchased his gilding powders and graining and signmaking supplies from several supply houses in Chicago and New York. Several copies of a monthly trade magazine, The Chicago Paint and Varnish Journal for the years 1888 to 1891, preserved with Wilson’s papers are full of articles on the “Harmony of Color”, “The Painters Library”, “How To Grain Burl Walnut”, “Mixing Striping Colors”, and discourses on the advantages of joining a painters’ union or the merits of fireproof whitewash and mechanical graining machines. It appears Wilson succumbed in the case of the latter; his papers include an instruction pamphlet for the use of the “Adams’ Air Cylinder Graining Machine”, a wondrous patented pneumatic device for graining woodwork that cost in 1868 – net cash – $100.00.
While the contents of the chair shop were sold out before the shop was moved, Meadowcroft Village was fortunate in being able to buy back a majority of Wilson’s tools in 1977. These tools, amounting to over 100 items, include five bow saws, a felloe saw, chisels and gouges, a pair of calipers, gimlets and awles, lathe chucks and other lathe parts, a mortising brace jig, draw knives, gilding equipment and a number of tool handles and chair patterns. The complete collection, along with several examples of chairs made by Wilson, is on display in the restored shop.
James Wilson’s tools and equipment are much like those of any rural carpenter, with a few exceptions. The use of the axe, bowsaw., the treadle lathe, draw knife and plane is obvious. Included is a set of chisels and gouges used in making grooves for slats, as mentioned earlier, some of them bearing the toolmaker’s mark of James Cam, Sheffield, England, 1787 – c. 1833. For drilling holes in the legs of stretchers, Wilson used a brace and a bit or a handmade mortising brace jig fitted with stops to gauge the depth of the hole being drilled. A number of rod and screw bits for the brace are fitted with scalloped-edge pewter ferrules. A set of “pattern” sticks was also used. These are sticks of hardwood, squared and marked for the type of chair being made. The patterns have pins inserted, protruding so that when the proper pattern was placed against a new stretcher or upright and tapped, the points left marks which served to guide Wilson where to drill holes.
Unusual among the saws in the collection is a felloe saw or a chairmakers saw. This type of saw is a lighter and shorter form of the frame or veneer saws usually found among cabinetmaking tools. Mercer illustrates this saw and states it was used in England by chairmakers for cutting straight or slightly curved pieces.
James Wilson, chairmaker, like everyone else, worked at his craft, accumulated wealth or a parcel of debts, raised a family, was subject to taxation and when the time came, died. When his will was probated he left an estate consisting of one house and lot in Taylorstown valued at $800.00 and personal property valued at $3,000.00. To his son, DeForrest, he bequeathed “my Watch and all the tools in the shop.”
Beers, J.H. & Co., Commemorative Biographical Record of Washington County, Pennsylvania; 1893
Kebabian, John S. ed., Joseph Smith Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with Engravings of each Article, EAIA, 1975
MacDonald, Wm. H., “Central New Jersey Chairmaking of the Nineteenth Century,” The Chronicle, Vol. 111, Nos. 6 and 7, January-April, 1946
Mercer, Henry C., Ancient Carpenters’ Tools, Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, PA 1960
Washington County Court House Deed Book 3R, page 127
Washington County Court House Will Book, No. 34,pages567-568
Wilson, James, MS Collection, Meadowcroft Village, Avella, Pennsylvania