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