Central New Jersey Chairmaking of the Nineteenth Century
Excerpted from The Chronicle Volume 3 Nos. 6 & 7, January & April 1946
by Wm. H. MacDonald
Chairmaking in small shops in central New Jersey reached its peak shortly after the middle of the Nineteenth Century and before the close of the century had given way completely to the competition of mass production and large scale operations. In the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s, many small shops producing chiefly the three-slat, rush seat decorated chair were thriving in the Counties of Monmouth, Mercer Middlesex and Hunterdon, all in the vicinity of the capital city, Trenton. Doubtless the fact that the city presented a market for their product beyond the needs of their local communities influenced the number of chair shops in the vicinity. The communities of New Brunswick in Middlesex County, Freehold in Monmouth County and Flemington in Hunterdon County also offered an outlet for the product of these rural and small town makers.
The chair of choice made at these shops was, in general, of the same type: about three feet high with three back slats set in the post with the widest slat at the top, a rush seat, with rounds or stretchers -sometimes one, sometimes two-on each side and at the back, below the seat, and with a shaped stretcher in front. The decoration applied to the slats and the posts, as well as the style of turning, particularly of the front posts and stretcher, gave the artisan an opportunity to apply an individual touch to his product. These three-slat chairs are of two general types, straight back and bent back. In the former type, the rear posts are straight from the foot to the top, although in many the front side of the post is flattened simply by cutting away part of the round surface of the post. The bent back type, on the other hand, although turned originally as a straight post, is not only flattened but is definitely bent at a point beginning a few inches above the seat, thus adding both to the appearance of the chair and to its practicability from the standpoint of comfort of the user. The bride of 1860 and 1870, in families of moderate circumstances, looked upon these rush seat chairs as an integral part of her housekeeping equipment; one set, probably of the cheaper straight back variety, for the kitchen and one set of the more shapely and comfortable bent back variety for parlor or best room use.
Slat back rocking chairs of the same general type as the straight chairs were also made in these local chair shops, the rockers usually being fastened to the posts by heavy screws. A few four-slat rockers were produced by some of these makers, the seats also being of rush with the slats and posts decorated. On special order, at special prices and, therefore, in limited numbers, sets of chairs were made with special turnings in the front posts, with a block in the seat over each front post and with straps of wood attached to the edges of the seat. Chairs with wood seats were produced by these makers only in very limited number and their production seems to have been fairly definitely limited to makers who had learned chairmaking in Philadelphia and there became skilled in making this type of chair. A few all wood settees were produced by these makers and some settees with rush seats were produced.
Chairs made in these small shops prior to 1850, and for twenty years or more thereafter, reflected the ability of the maker, and gave range to his personal taste in turnings and detail of design. Gradually, however, in part of the Monmouth County area at least, commercial saw mills began sawing chair stock, both for posts and slats. Chairmakers in this particular area, perhaps to meet competition in costs, began to use this ready cut stock until eventually the style of chairs produced at several different shops became almost standardized.
Several factors had a direct bearing upon the location of these small chair shops. One was a prospective market, including a strictly local market and also a larger market for surplus stock, available within practical hauling distance by horse and wagon. Other factors were availability of wood lots of maple and hickory or oak, and availability of natural growths of rush. Maple and hickory or oak trees were cut in a nearby wood lot; poplar trees for slats were cut locally or poplar planks were purchased and hauled from a distance ; rush was obtained in abundance along South River in Middlesex County or local growth of cattails was utilized for material for seats.
The chairs were a handmade article throughout, requiring labor, skill and time far greater than appears commensurate with the price obtained. First, selected trees had to be felled, the bark removed, the logs split into chair stock size and the stock hauled to the chair shop for seasoning and “working up.” Selected stock, after being shaped by broad ax and drawing knife, was then turned down to the size of chair posts on a foot treadle lathe. The cross pieces or rounds to brace the posts were also turned and the slats sawed from seasoned wood and planed. Any of the pieces so prepared, and which was to be bent or curved in the final product, such as slats and rear posts of the bent back variety, must then be steamed or soaked in hot water, placed in racks or “crimps” constructed for the purpose where they were carefully bent to conform to the shape of the rack, fastened securely and allowed to dry for several days. Holes were then bored in the proper places in the posts for the rounds and matting braces and slots chiseled or gouged for the slats. All this must be done before the frame could be assembled.
The rush for the seat was then selected from the stock previously harvested, sun cured and stored. The selected strands, after being moistened, were twisted together and the seat constructed on the chair frame. This rush had been collected when green during the preceding season; the chairmaker with helpers had journeyed with one or more teams and rack wagons to a natural rush flat, cut the rush, hauled it in bundles to his shop where each bundle was opened, spread out and cured many days, much handling being necessary for the curing process alone.
After the seat was completed, it was painted. The chair frame was given a prime coat for finishing, then a second coat after which the decorations were applied by the use of stencils or by striping, or both. A final coat of varnish was then applied and the chair was ready for sale.
A realization of the enormous amount of labor necessary to construct even the simplest of these hand made chairs should cause a deeper appreciation of this product.
The woods of choice used in these chairs are maple for posts, hickory or oak for rounds, oak, hickory or ash for matting rounds and seasoned poplar for slats. Maple was doubtless selected for two reasons, its fitness for posts and its availability; hickory or oak for strength, as well as availability; poplar was well suited for slats but other wood, including maple, was used. The practice of the skilled chairmaker was to use green wood for posts and seasoned wood for other parts. The shrinkage of the green wood improved the tightness of the joints. Some chairmakers depended so definitely on this principle that no glue was used in joints. For matting rounds or braces, scrap ash was obtained by some chairmakers from wagon building shops where ash was regularly used in the bows of wagon tops.
The process of finishing chairs conformed to a general pattern, although each maker practiced some variation which he had found helpful or, more particularly, time saving. Usually to the raw wood a prime coat was applied containing a red color; venetian red mixed with oil, with added glue, was common. Over this there was applied a black coat of which the base was asphaltum. This black coating over the red gave a shade suggestive of mahogany. Most of the cheaper, straight back chairs and many bent backs were given a “spotted” finish by brushing on the final black coat so that its thickness varied, giving an appearance suggestive of the grain of natural wood.
Decorative designs were usually applied by means of paper stencils. In finishing bent back chairs, it was the general practice to apply such designs to posts as well as to slats. Most of the stencils used by these makers and which have survived, were cut as an entire design from sheets of account book paper. Because of the relatively fragile material used, stencils could have been used only a limited number of times and the necessity of copying and cutting out new stencils so frequently must, indeed, have been discouraging. In decorating chairs, the parts to be decorated after painting were given a coat of varnish, which was allowed to dry until tacky. The stencil was then applied and, by means of pounces made of velvet or buckskin, colored powder was applied. The stencil was then carefully peeled off and the design completed by use of paint and a fine brush for border stripes, fruit stems, veins of leaves and similar fine lines.
The tools used by different chairmakers were practically alike and were limited in number. The use for the axe, saw, turning lathe, drawing knife and plane is obvious. A chisel or gouge and heavy mallet was used in making grooves in the posts for slats. For drilling holes in the posts for stretchers and matting braces, a handmade brace was used fitted with a hollow bit of the size of the round and having a cutting edge. Commonly, work with brace and bit and gouge or chisel was done on a heavy bench, little above knee height, the chair posts being held in place on this bench by means of triangular wedges so driven as to hold the posts tight against pegs set in the bench. For bending posts for bent back chairs, the posts after steaming were placed in a specially designed rack so made that a post inserted in a hole at the bottom could be bent to con[form<?>] and held securely at the top by means of metal rings or by wedges.
In seating chairs, it was common practice to attach the chair to a “matting stool” or “cricket.” This was a low stool bolted to the floor, having a circular upright with a cross piece so made as to rotate on the upright. The cross piece was equipped with two iron clamps to hold the chair firmly in place and at the same time permit it to be turned freely while the rush seat was made. A small wood mallet, also called a “matting tool,” was used both to keep the strands of rush close together and to keep them straight, as well as to prevent overlapping, while the seat was being made. Sticks of hard wood with one end flattened were used to pack loose rush between the upper and lower parts of the seat; these were called “stuffers.” “Patterns” were also used. These were sticks of hard wood, squared and of the length and shape of posts. The patterns had pins inserted, protruding so that when the proper pattern was placed against a new post and tapped, the points left marks which served to guide the worker when making openings for rounds and slats.
Chairs made in these local shops were sold at retail at the shop, the surplus being marketed through established furniture stores in nearby larger centers of population. The straight back variety of chair, decorated and with rush seat, retailed from the local shops at from $1.00 to $1.25 each; the bent backs retailed from $1.25 to $1.50 each. The wholesale price of straight backs ranged from $4.00 to $6.00 for sets of six; bent backs brought from $5.00 to $7.00 per set. Three-slat rockers brought about $6.00 per half dozen and four-slat rockers of this type were priced at about $7.00 per half dozen. The usual price for putting in a new rush seat in any chair of this type was $.40. Such was the compensation received by these hard working, skilled mechanics producing a strictly hand made article of usefulness and varying degrees of style. Few of their shops remain standing; none is longer used for chairmaking.
The annual output of any one of these small shops was not great; however, the combined output of these makers in the central New Jersey area was sufficiently large to result in keen competition in disposing of the product. Some shops had a yearly output of only very few sets a year; other shops, of course, had a much greater output, one in the group reaching an annual total of about one thousand chairs when operating at its peak. Several of the smaller producers, perhaps by choice but probably from necessity to augment the family income, worked at other trades or occupations during the summer season. Housepainting, broom making, basket making and farming were practiced; one of the group specialized in painting and decorating the interior of small rural churches, in addition to his chairmaking business.
Chairmakers in this Central Jersey area include, among others : Pierson Thompson, John and Peter Leonard and the Herberts of Englishtown and Tennent; the Claytons and the Byards, Anthony Kennedy, Joseph Buckelew, William Gulick, Jesse Van Hise and others of Allentown and vicinity; John Appleton of Hamilton Square; Henry Penson of Union Valley; the Hornes of Harmony and Sergeantsville; Tunis and Joseph Servis and Henry Hortman of Sourland Mountain; John Volk and William Hann of Flemington. All these and others contributed their share of rush seat chairs of the period; hard workers producing a handmade article which met the needs of the housewife at the time and which is now being preserved, sought for and restored as heirlooms of past generations.