The American Myth of the Continuous-Arm Chair

The now-ubiquitous Windsor chair has its roots in the simple, ancient stick-chairs of Great Britain. The Windsor chair is differentiated from other styles of chairs in that the seat plank serves the foundation for the entire the chair. The legs terminate in mortises below the seat, as do the spindles above the seat. Other historical forms of seating rely on the wood to serve merely as a frame for the seat, which could receive upholstery or woven reeds, bark, or cane.

Welsh stick chair
Welsh stick chair, proto-Windsor chair.

The stick chair evolved into what we would recognize today as a “Windsor” chair in England in the early 18th century, and the form was soon exported to colonial America, where the chair grew in popularity to become the dominant form of seating. From its humble beginnings, the Windsor chair evolved into a dizzying array of different forms throughout the 18th century – all of them originating in Great Britain before making their way across the Atlantic – with innovation continuing on into the early 19th century.

Though there is a fair amount of variation in the arrangement of legs and stretchers below the seat, chairs are typically classified according to what’s going on above the seat. For a solid primer on the different styles of Windsor chairs in the 18th century, I would suggest this article by Nancy Goyne Evans, the woman who wrote the book on American Windsor chairs (literally).

One of the last styles to be developed during the 18th century is also one of my personal favorites – the continuous-arm. According to Evans, “Regarded today as a classic in Windsor design, the continuous-bow chair was developed in New York City about 1790. The sweeping profile of the bow is based on the French bergère chair, examples of which were produced at this date by local cabinetmakers. This is the only eighteenth-century Windsor pattern based on a non-English prototype, and it is the only Windsor design dating before 1810 introduced to the American market in a place other than Philadelphia.

Given that Evans is such a widely respected authority on Windsor chairs, this statement has apparently carried some weight in the chairmaking community, because it is frequently repeated by chairmakers today. Witness Elia Bizarri’s remarks to Roy Underhill at around minute 1:20 in this video.

In fact, some have even taken it a step farther than simply stating the design originated in America; chairmaker Bob Dillon states on his website that the chair was “uniquely American, never appearing in Europe.”

And finally, some folks are frankly just somewhere out in left field with regard to this topic. Thomas Moser is undoubtedly a legend in the cabinetmaking community, but his website’s statement regarding the continuous-arm chair is more than a little suspect: “In about 1750, Rhode Island cabinetmakers came up with the idea of making the arm and the back of the chair from a single piece of hickory or ash, two types of wood that lend themselves to being steam bent and curved. While undoubtedly beautiful and comfortable, the Continuous Arm Chair took tremendous skill and patience to make, because of the need to form a compound curve with right angle bends.

I don’t believe there’s a shred of documentary evidence that points to a Rhode Island origin for this style, and certainly not as early as 1750. But let’s return Goyne’s statement that the continuous-arm is a uniquely American form. Observe these two chairs originating from the tiny town of Yealmpton, England:

Yealmpton

Looks very much like a continuous-arm to me.These chairs were recently sold at auction, being described as “Iconic Pair of ‘Yealmpton’ Continuous Arm Windsor Chairs”. I must thank the pseudonymous “Jack Plane” over at the fantastic blog Pegs and Tails for bringing this obscure style to my attention. He included a picture of the chairs in a post on English Windsors back on February 24 with the following description: “The chairs in figure 10 are of an egregious style peculiar to the town of Yealmpton in Devon which – whether for reasons of relative geographical isolation… or taste – thankfully didn’t pervade the country at large.

Personally, I find the chairs quite charming, if a bit peculiar. I would assume that Jack’s objection to the pictured chairs stems primarily from the regressive style of the turnings and the somewhat overstated radial splay of the the over-sized spindles. They look almost like the spokes of a wheel compared to the more subtle splay of conventional Windsor chairs. I certainly find no fault with the design of the continuous-arm, which almost looks as though it could be plucked from these chairs and placed onto a New York continuous-arm and hardly a soul would notice.

A quick Google search will confirm that, indeed, this style of chair is well-associated with the history of Yealmpton, which begs the question: which came first? The styles are simply too similar to have evolved independently of one another. The earliest American continuous-arms date from around 1790. In the comments on his blog, Jack states that the “Yealmpton chairs were in production prior to 1780“. If true, it means that the continuous-arm Windsor chair, rather than being the invention of some ingenious American chairmaker, is just another style imported from England, like all the rest.

(For the curious: I tried to do a bit of research on the topic myself, but frankly I’m at a loss as to where to even begin. The history of English antiques is very much a foreign topic to me. So instead I asked Jack himself – a former antiques dealer – if he knew of any primary sources supported the pre-1780 origin of the style. He said that his reference books were packed away at the moment, but that he intends to follow up on the topic himself. So keep an eye on his blog if you’re interested in a firmer conclusion to this saga.)

Even if further evidence demonstrates that the style did originate in the Old Country, that doesn’t mean that American chairmakers should feel any less pride in our chairmaking heritage. After all, unlike the rather unsophisticated, stump-legged chairs from the southern coast of England, the New York continuous-arm is an enduring icon: a refined symbol of good taste, comfort, and durability.

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2 thoughts on “The American Myth of the Continuous-Arm Chair

  1. The Yealmpton chairs were essentially made for villagers and local farmers – there was no necessity for flourishes. Incidentally some of the ancient Yealmpton chairs would have been crafted by my 4xgreat grandfather, Thomas Chambers, who is recorded in the 1851 census of Yealmpton as a “chairmaker” – subsequently factory made chairs from larger towns overtook the local craft.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Very cool to hear that your great etc. grandfather was a Yealmpton chairmaker! And of course, no disrespect is meant in my description of the Yealmpton continuous-arms – I am a huge fan of local vernacular furniture, including these wonderful chairs.

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