What a rare treat it was for Rogues’ Hollow Antiques to spend the day with two collectors of early Ontario chairs. Due to the sheer volume of examples, we decided to focus on children’s chairs. We don’t often see such a large collection of early children’s chairs in one place because many didn’t survive their usage. The variety of forms and styles in this collection provides an interesting snapshot of what our early settlers’ homes must have been like. We started at Dr. Peter Bell’s log house, a meticulously curated and restored two story log house built in the 1840’s which had been moved to Peter’s property only a short distance away, saving it from almost certain eventual ruin.
Peter has an extensive collection of early eastern Ontario chairs including ladderback, Windsor, fancy chairs and a wide variety of early children’s chairs.
We met Art Shaw who is currently working on a book, Early Chairs and Chairmakers of Eastern Ontario. Art has been studying antique chairs from the region for over 30 years. His area of interest is from the earliest settlements (found in Kingston 1815) to the 1870’s. Art describes it further:
All the chair parts were turned on a lathe, or most of them. The seats were made by hand. But the lathe-made chairs are Windsor chairs and ladderbacks. That’s what I’m writing about, and I exclude all the various chairs that came from the cabinetmaking trade, like upholstered chairs. I’m writing about what we call the primitive turn chairs now. (1)
The chairs found in this house were primarily built in eastern Ontario during the second half of the 19th century. They would be what one would expect to find in an Upper Canadian log house.
As we made our way through the house, Art pointed out that there were three ladderback chairs made by the same Frontenac County maker that he referred to as “Frontenac Anonymous”: a rocker, side chair and a child’s chair. Chairmakers would often make chairs in the same style but with different functions. Distinguishing characteristics between these chairs are the finials, the turnings on the legs and the size of the “mushrooms” or handles.
Peter showed us wear marks on the “Frontenac Anonymous” child’s chair illustrating how a child would have used it. The chair would be placed face down on the floor allowing him/her to hold onto the legs for support as he/she was learning to walk.
Wear on the chairs is almost universally found on both the front and back of ladderback chairs, as well as some rocking chairs, supporting the supposition that using them as walkers was a tradition, and not just an occasional occurrence. But perhaps, as Peter points out, there’s another reason collectors value children’s chairs:
It appears that early families liked to purchase rockers, side chairs and arm chairs for children in the same styles as adult chairs and of course we love to collect them as a reminder that love for children is timeless and connects us with our ancestors.
Styles that Influenced Children’s Chairs
In Elizabeth Ingolfsrud’s book All About Ontario Chairs (2) she explains that most early 19th century Ontario chairmakers were influenced by European (primarily British) and American styles, with some interesting characteristics relevant to the region:
- Ontario ladderback chairs (popular in Britain and America – the earliest and most common) had plain turnings.
- Windsor chairs were influenced by English and American styles.
- Art points out that native woods were chosen for their different qualities: Windsor chairs used basswood for seats and elm for turnings and bending. Ladderbacks were usually turned from maple or birch, with rungs and slats from ash or hickory.
- Seats were woven of rush and/or splint in a simple basket pattern.
- The most desirable seat of all was made of elm bark (which could almost be mistaken as leather).
- A mixture of woods explains why many early Ontario chairs were painted or stained to give cohesion to the design.
The children’s high chairs shown here reflect British and American influences, combined with the sturdy construction characteristic of our early settlers.
Other Types of Children’s Chairs
The variety of chairs we found impressed us. Here are only a few:
- A Boy’s Box Potty Chair: influenced by Pennsylvania traditions dates to the second half of the 19th century with original early paint; examples have been found in Leeds.
- Child’s Rocking Chair: probably made by William Burnham, Mallorytown, ON; original ash splint woven seat; circa 1860.
- Child’s Size Chair-Table: Mid 19th century; a child’s version of a full size round table that doubles as a chair.
- Child’s Windsor Chairs: Ontario; second half of the 19th century.
- Nursing Rocker: used in the bedroom; from eastern Ontario; hand painted; dates to the first half of the 19th century.
- Child’s Banc-lit or Settle Bed: from Hastings County; original paint and hardware; circa 1860.
Factory or Machine-Made Chairs
Most early Ontario chairs were made in small one or two-man shops, often referred to as “factories”, using a horse to power the lathe. Some were made by farmers who turned to chair making for cash during the winter. The coming of the railroad in the late 1850’s marked the beginning of the decline of these shops. By 1865 they were competing against the Jacques & Hay factory in Toronto, which produced 2500 chairs a week.
Factory or machine-made refers to the use of production machinery that was being developed at a great rate, such as automatic lathes that spit out turnings in seconds. Factory made chairs often lacked the unique characteristics and charm of one-man shops but still carried on the tradition of early styles before mass-production of chairs took hold in the 20th century.
An Eighteenth Century Child’s High Chair
We were delighted to find among Dr. Peter Bell’s collection an 18th century child’s high chair from the early days of Upper Canada. A photo of it appears in Howard Pain’s well known book The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture – A Study in the Survival of Formal and Vernacular Styles from Britain, America and Europe, 1780-1900 (3) (see the addendum for more information on Upper Canada).
Howard Pain’s description of the chair (plate 214) points out its attributes:
A slat-back high chair from Hastings County. This is another fine example of the early splayed form with mushrooms and flame finials. Probably 18th century.
The chair has the original woven elm bark seat and black paint. The three curved slats on the back are also well proportioned.
George Wing High Chair
There was another high chair in Peter’s collection that appeared in Howard Pain’s book (plate 213).
Art describes it as an outstanding example because:
The fine turnings and wide splay to the legs follow the 18th century American precedent. This example however, has been revealed to be made near Lyndhurst, Ontario in the third quarter of the 19th century in the horse-powered shop of George Wing.
Peter puts the American influence on Upper Canadian furniture in the context of eastern Ontario’s early history:
It strikes me that the style of ladderback chairs that survived into the second half of the 19th century in Frontenac, Lennox & Addington, Leeds & Grenville counties has roots in the 17th and 18th century American pilgrim furniture. Although some of them appear to be 1850-1860 or later, I believe some of them are likely first and second quarter of the 19th century. Indeed, it is likely that Loyalists might have brought 18th century chairs with them. Occasionally, we see estates of early settlers where belongings have stayed in the family for five generations and sometimes this includes items that appear to be 18th century and must have been brought with them. In other cases, they may have come with just the knowledge and skill to make items with 18th century American origins. So I think there must be continuity of style here that has very early roots and yet remarkably survived in eastern Ontario into a relatively late period.
The children’s chairs in Peter’s collection display a wide range of diverse influences, and were made by craftsmen of varying skill and origins. They “emerged out of the wilderness” and are tangible examples of early Upper Canadian pioneer life. It would be unimaginable to understand our heritage without the collectors and scholars who teach us to value their significance.
Peter explains it best:
Collecting domestic items such as children’s chairs is a reminder of the common humanity that connects us to our ancestors, will connect us to our descendants and, in the present, connects us with humanity around the world.
Conservation and Restoration
If you happen to own one of our early chairs, it is worth considering Howard Pain’s thoughts on the subject, reprinted here from his above noted book:
Even the most ordinary of these objects deserves careful preservation and as owners we are in a sense curators of a part of our cultural heritage. Thoughtful and knowledgeable restoration is of great importance. Furnishings which retain their original finish or decoration, whatever the condition, are the most valued of early material. These should not be altered in any way without expert advice and skilful, patient technique. Even those pieces with many layers of paint varnish may retain a fine patina, painted decoration or early colour which can be restored with skill and care. Power sanders and strong chemicals are the greatest enemies of early furniture.
The practice of written documentation of the provenance of material in private hands is also highly recommended. The family name and origin, place of residence in Canada, where the object came from, who made it and related dates are all factors which add greatly to the interest and value of all early furnishings. These are often lost for all time if left to casual communication.
The Province of Upper Canada was created in 1791 and was renamed Canada West in 1841. With the Confederation of the Canadian provinces in 1867, the region became the present Province of Ontario. Officially, therefore, Upper Canada only existed for fifty years. (3)
- A Chair-man, never-bored, article written by Alanah Duffy, published by The Kingston Whig-Standard, Kingston, Ontario, February 25, 2013
- All About Ontario Chairs, by Elizabeth Ingolfsrud, published by The House of Grant (CANADA) Ltd, Toronto, ON, 1974
- The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture, A Study in the Survivial and Vernacular Styles from Britain, America and Europe, 1780-1900, by Howard Pain, published by Prospero Books, Toronto, ON, 1984
- The Furniture of Old Ontario, by Philip Shackleton, published by Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1973
Rogues’ Hollow Antiques would like to thank Dr. Peter Bell, David Field from Croydon House Antiques, and Art Shaw for making this post possible.