Windsor Chairs: A History in Classic Furniture
The English origin of the Windsor chair is muddy, but one legend is (and I like this one best) is that King George was out hunting and got lost. He stumbled across a cottage in the woods, and the owners gave him a home made wooden chair to sit in. It was what we call Windsor style today, and the King liked it so much he had it copied and put in Windsor Castle. The Windsor chair had humble beginnings, but has become one of America’s most loved chairs.
The English Windsor chair
The English Windsor was very basic. Furniture makers were required to be members of a guild, which had strict regulations on what and how they could build. Creativity was stifled, so the final product was very standard.
- Vertical legs, vertical back
- Pierced backsplat
- Cabriole legs
- Square seat with rounded corners
- Spindles socketed into the top of the seat, legs socketed into the bottom
English furniture makers used local wood, which was plentiful. Thick Windsor seats were of elm, turned pieces were birch, and the arms were ash and yew.
The Windsor chair comes to America
The design of the Windsor chair came to Colonial America around 1730. Here is where craftsmen took the basic idea and improved upon it. The freedom and novelty new Americans were experiencing was evident in how creative they got with this design – they ran with it, making the Windsor finer and lighter.
- Splayed legs
- No backsplat
- Simple turned legs
- Saddle seat – D shaped. Later it became an oval shape and shield shaped.
- Back slightly reclined
American woods were different than English woods. Seats were of poplar or soft pine, spindles of oak, chestnut or hickory, and arms and stretches were of birch and maple. These woods were stronger and more flexible making a sturdier chair.
Windsor chairs were first made in Philadelphia. Since it was on the coast, it was easy to transport them via ship up and down the eastern seaboard from the Caribbean to New England. Before long, furniture makers in New York and New England were designing their own versions of the ‘Philadelphia chair’. Each region had its own design and used available woods. You could tell where a Windsor chair came from by its design and materials.
Windsor chair designed to be versatile
Windsor chairs were designed to be used on a daily basis, and so they were suitable for a large range of people and situations. They were lightweight, sturdy, fit to a human body and inexpensive. They were quick to make compared to other furniture of the times, so they were very accessible. Windsors were found in the living room, dining room, farmhouses, courthouses, inns, taverns, libraries, meeting houses and outdoors.
Up until 1780, Windsor chairs were painted green, partly because they were originally used as outdoor furniture, and the paint served as protection. Paint covered up the various woods, giving the chair a consistent feel, and it helped show off the chair, since the pieces were all very narrow. There was little wood grain to show off, so paint emphasized the chair’s details.
Styles of Windsor chairs
From 1780 to the mid 1800s, Windsors were painted red, and in the late 1800s, black paint was the norm. Later, various motifs were stenciled on with bronze powders and gilt. In the early 20th century, people began stripping the paint and varnishing old Windsor chairs. Although it was beautiful, it devalued an antique chair to almost nothing. A valuable chair had the various layers of paint showing through with wear.
Windsor Chair styles were:
- Fan Back
- Sack Back
- Bow Back
- Comb Back
- Low Back
- Continuous Arm
A writing arm chair was made with a writing surface on one side, like a modern child’s school desk. A small drawer was under the seat for writing supplies. These are very rare.
Windsor chairs from Old England to New England
The most collectible Windsor chair was made from 1725-1825. Today, the Windsor is the most widely copied chair. If you are so inclined, you can learn how to make an 18th century Windsor chair with Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute in Hampton, New Hampshire. What better place to learn this than New England?
The design of a Windsor chair, rocker or settee is timeless and will grace interiors for decades and centuries to come.