Why indeed

The other night, Alexander took out a Swing-Away can opener & opened a long-standing can of worms with the following question concerning wainscot chairs:

“What is the meaning or utility, if there is one, of the the hole and slot undeneath the arm of the wainscot chair?”

Most wainscot chairs have scrolled arms, and the pattern varies only slightly. 90% of the chairs’ parts have straight lines; but the arms and often the crest rail have shaped profiles. Here’s a couple of  typical wainscot chair arms:

wainscot chair arm profile


Lincoln family chair, arm detail

I hear questions frequently about “why” this or that. Most often why did “they” make their chairs either a.) three-legged; or b.) triangular. Depending on which the person asks, I answer the other. It’s 3-legged because it’s triangular and it’s triangular because it’s three-legged. Why they did this and why they did that is really a difficult question of course. We have no written records from makers of 17th-century furniture about their products. Speculation abounds. I dislike speculation. It’s hard enough to read the minds of live people, let alone the long-dead.

 Instead, I ask, “Why does there need to be a purpose for the cut-outs?”  I can imagine that the chairs are made that way because that’s the way they made them. I remember Daniel O’Hagan telling me about some travels he made in England right after WWII. Again & again he saw the five-bar gates wth 2 diagonal braces and one central vertical strut. All oak. Daniel asked some farmer why all the gates are made that way, and the answer came back that that’s how you make them…(yet with the gates, there seems to be a great regional variation, but that’s a whole study in itself… Daniel must have been traveling in one area at the time…)

 So back to the chair arms. As you see above, most arms are of one type, but there’s a few variations. Typically they are set up on edge, with the profile cut in the top and bottom surfaces. Most have a hole cut at the rear for the scroll shape, some have holes front & rear. Some have no holes, just two curves coming together (that’s easier to cut). Here’s one from Plymouth Colony with the holes cut fore and aft; this same shape is used on chair/tables of the area. (Some wainscots have arms set on the flat, and their scrolls are worked in the other plane. Another discussion some day)

Plymouth Colony wainscot chair, side view

 Next one is Trent’s nearly-all-time favorite wainscot chair, probably from Providence, Rhode Island. Bears a strong realtionship in some details to the Plymouth Colony wainscot chairs. Essentially the same arm profile.

wainscot chair, Providence RI


Others have no holes bored, but just two curves meeting under the arm. This makes the arms easier to cut than those with holes in them. An English one, maybe from Somerset, shows this:

English wainscot chair, maybe Somerset


Now. Why were they done this way? Who knows? Here’s a picture of me showing one theory I have heard.

lifting wainscot chair by arm cutouts

You can lift the chair by putting your fingers under or in the holes, depending on the size of the holes and your fingers. In theory, the chair balances in such a way that it tilts away from you, so you don’t bang your shins with the front of the chair. It works, better with some chairs/arms than with others. (these arms are pretty flat, it works best with arms that are pitched down towards the front stiles) But so what? Might make sense if you’re moving the chair one foot or so, or maybe you dropped something under it…but it’s no way to carry one of these chairs. The one in the first picture weighs 33 lbs. If you try to carry that chair from one room to another by this method; it will hurt. When I carry them any distance, I either grab them underneath the two side seat rails, or get someone else & carry them by the rear feet and back of the top of the chair. Much easier on your back(s).

 So my opinion is that lifting/balancing the chair by the arm cut-outs is a parlor trick. Interesting, but useless. Now I’m sure we’ll hear other opinions. Chris Currie mentioned that maybe he has heard other ideas? Chris?


17 thoughts on “Why indeed

  1. Looks to me that it is tailor made for lacing cushioning. Drafty places before central heating to be sitting in a bare chair.

  2. As I understand it, 3 legged stools were made to be used on uneven surfaces/floors. As to the wainscot, I have no idea. I can see no practicle reason other than style/decoration.

  3. I’ve often thought the same as David; that it’s some sort of cleat for holding cushions. Though some of these you show look like they are purely decorative, others look mostly utilitarian. On a chair as ornately carved as these, a simple cutout decoration like that seems a little off target.

    While it’s true the three legged stool will not rock on uneven terrain, it also uses less materials which would keep the price down while increasing the available market.

  4. well, I knew this was starting something. I will show some three-legged chairs that are far too elaborate to fit the “sits on uneven floor” equation. And as to using less material, while they have fewer legs and rails, they are much harder to build than a four-legged chair. See some of my posts on them, as well as the article in Popular Woodworking Magazine, Oct 2010, pp. 23 & 24.



    I’m not sure I follow how the cushions are connected to the holes in the arms…cushions were usually used on the seats.

  5. They are in the right place if I were to lace a pad to the back of the chair and matching ones to put some on the arms as well. It would be much in the vein of a wingback chair in more modern times. It would not only be for padding. Drafts are more likely a problem. It would be interesting to look through old portraits and such to see if there are any to be seen.

    I would cross the lacing across the back of the chair and tie on the opposite side so it wouldn’t slump and make a wad in the small of the back.

  6. While these are not definitive, I think that they back up the idea of draping or padding as a way of life for this furniture. It would only make sense for a way to keep it all in place.

      • Ah, but herein lies the rub…

        I think that you are looking at it through 21st Century eyes. At that time, metal fasteners and permanently attached fabrics for upholstery would be an extravagance reserved for the very wealthy. They don’t come off. Textiles were wealth. They would commonly be brought out for special occasions and to combat the cold. Their entire lifestyle is similar. Tapestries on the walls. Draped beds. Rugs on the floor. The upholstery for a chair would be something treasured and put away for the most part. It would only be brought out when it was needed either to keep warm or to impress the guests. These textiles were not the disposable commodity that we have today. They were the result of many hours spinning, weaving, sewing, and embroidering. The upholstery would actually represent much more labor and expense than the furniture they were covering. Along with that, who wants to sit around in a heavily draped chair in the middle of summer?

      • David
        Now I have sub-sub comments; but you & I can bat this around endlessly if we’re not careful.
        I am well aware of the role of textiles in the English/New England household of the 17th century. I think the phrase “very wealthy” is an exaggeration…yet I agree in principal that textiles were expensive.

        The real gist of the matter is that your notion, just as I suspected when I wrote the original post, is speculative. There is no basis for your cushion bound around a wainscot chair. It’s certainly possible, but not prove-able, really.

        I wonder too, why the houses in your scenario would not just have upholstered chairs, either leather or turkey work, instead of this convertible wainscot chair?

        Until there is some actual evidence, a Dutch painting for example, (these show the class of people for whom this oak furniture was intended, not the upper-class subjects of your linked paintings) or a bit of period documentary evidence, I’ll stick with my thought that this cutout is decorative.
        But thanks for your time & thoughts. It’s all in good fun.

      • No, thank you! Its fascinating. The biggest problem is the people were unkind not to commission portraits of their furniture. Some of these details may never be deciphered.

  7. Of the wainscot chairs that I have studied in my locality (suffolk,England), perhaps a third do not have this feature on the arms, I would therefore assume it was decorative rather than functional. Such decoration though may have developed from an ancestor to these chairs. As to what it’s function may have been, if it ever had one, I don’t think we’ll ever know.
    As for three footed chairs, were medieval and later floors really so uneven as to require a special kind of furniture. I live in a 500 year old house and the floors slope in various directions but can still use 4 leg chairs. I also have a number of 17th century brick floors laid on sand and again any variation is not great enough to demand a three footed chair. I suspect that some people just preferred the look of them. (As I do).

  8. Interesting discussion and for once in my life, i am going with Peter on this one.

    J Rayner makes an important point, that 1/3 of the chairs in his region did not have this feature. This kinda blows up the theory that these cut outs were used to hold fabric in place.

    • Another thing i just noticed in re-reading thread, the photo titled
      “Plymouth Colony wainscot chair, side view”

      It has a similar cut out on seat rail/apron and stretcher.

      CASE CLOSED! another old furniture mystery solved, it was a decorative feature.lol

  9. Okay, if not to save money maybe the three legged stool helps to save space. I believe they had small rooms in those days and would push aside the furniture to make room for the days work. So can you store two triangle chairs in the same space as one rectangle chair?

    Of course, lots of features probably serve more than one purpose:

    Those hooks on the chair arms are decorative, but I bet they could also be used while building the chairs for shaping the arms. Just hook it on a rope tied to the bench leg and push a spokeshave across to make a comfy armrest.

    Like the scrolls on violins, they look nice, but they work even better for hanging the instruments.

  10. Hello,

    My original wainscot chair doesn’t have those hooked ‘scrolls’ under the arms near
    the backrest such a sudden angled widening
    of the armrest bringing it into line with
    the lowest undercurve of the armrest and with the structural advantage of a wider join to the back. It may be of interest that
    mine also has an upholstered seat quite contemporary to the rest of the chair. this
    consists of a(once red) neatly tacked pad
    stuffed with fleece with the traces of a floral design over what appears to be a leather faced fabric. It looks for all the world, like ‘leatherette’ (a 20th century invention!) Just to add my oar to the three-legged stool discussion, I did not see any
    suggestion of the obvious- They fit into a
    room corner, and save space like a whatnot?


  11. I have studied many English wainscots with these cut-outs under the arms, and I have never once seen any signs of wear that a rope lashing would produce on the edges. Also, why did the carver lavish such artistry on the backs of chairs if they were to be covered up with a cushion? The idea of cushions on the back of wainscots has no foundation in historical fact. Forget it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s