When I was first learning about 17th-century furniture, Jennie Alexander used to send me titles of books to find or in some cases, the books themselves. And several of them I read over and over again. One was Benno Forman’s American Seating Furniture 1630-1730. As I’ve been at the lathe lately (not turning chairs, but the pillars for a cupboard) I was thinking about turners’ work. Forman cited some detailed records about chairmaking from the Boston area.
One was about the number of chair frames a turner could produce. When Trent & I worked on an article about Boston furniture, I spent a lot of time reviewing Forman’s writings about Boston area joiners and turners. One turner he wrote about was Thomas Edsall. We had better genealogical reference materials than Forman did, he mistakenly identified Edsall as a London turner arriving here in the mid-1630s. He was a turner, just not necessarily from London and his first New England record is a marriage in 1652. He often appears in court records, which is good for us. I like when they all argue and go to court, it provides a source of details about the work.
There’s several court records about a dispute between Thomas Edsall and Henry Harris, a turner who was contracted to work with him for a year.
“This indenture witnesseth that Henry Harris doth covenant and promise to dwell with and serve Thomas Edsall in the art and trade of a turner, according to the best of his skill and his master’s instruction for & during one whole year, from the day & the date hereof. And the said Thomas Edsall doth for him ___ and his ____ and administrators covenant to pay unto his said servant for the service aforesaid three pounds and to give him sufficient meate drink washing & lodging during the said [___] and the pay is to be made in one third part money (current?) in New England and one other third part in merchantable provisions and one other third part in English goods. And that the payments be made proportionally at the ends of every three months. In witness whereof the parties [_____] to their hands to these indentures this 19th day of March 1666/7″
But it didn’t work out that way. In April of 1673 Harris said Edsall owed him 40 or 50 shillings (out of 60 total)
“The deposition of Henry Fane aged about 83 years
This deponent witnesseth that about a month [____] Henry Harris of Charlestown, turner wrought with this deponent in bottoming of chayres at which said tyme he the said Henry Harris was [____] of some difference that was likely [____] between his master Edsall [______] and [___] this deponent asked him what the difference was and he the said Harris then said afterwards that he was a servant to the said Mr Edsall [____] further that the said Edsall had not payd all for his (year’s service?) to the value of about 40 or 50, but said that 40 or fifty shillings was still due to him and further this deponent sayeth not. Dated 25 of April 1673″
“Bottoming” chairs is weaving the seats, in most cases with rushes or flags – long-leafed plants found at the water’s edge. Like in my back yard.
In between the original contract and Fane’s deposition, there was a judgment in Edsall’s favor:
“According to a covenant . . . dated the 19th day of March, 1666/7 . . . I judge and order the said Harris either to dwell with & serve the said Edsell eight whole weeks beginning on the 17th Day of this June  & to make every of the said weekes fifteen chair frames [illegible] good and merchantable or else shall make one whole hundred and twenty such frames in the whole eight week [illegible] the said Edsell finding & allowing unto him the said Harris sufficient place, tooles & stuff to make them.”
So – fifteen chair frames a week – yikes. But it doesn’t tell us what the chairs look like. One thing I often cite is a London record that distinguishes between “turned matted chairs” and “plain matted chairs” – speculating what plain matted chairs might be.
“20th February 1615 It was directed that the makers of chairs about the City, who were strangers and foreigners, were to bring them to the Hall to be searched according to the ordinances. When they were thus brought and searched, they were to be bought by the Master and Wardens at a price fixed by them, which was 6s per dozen for plain matted chairs and 7s per dozen for turned matted chairs. The effect of such an order…all chairs which came into London had to be submitted to the Company and if approved, were taken over at the fixed price. The Turners reaped the benefit by the removal of possible competition. (The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925), p. 121)”
Here’s one of my versions of what I took to be a “plain” matted chair – made back when I was working in a museum, where it got a lot of use.
I used to make a frame for those in a day, about 6 hours or so. But I couldn’t weave the seat quickly at all – never did it enough to get fast or good. Which brings us to rush seating. Rush seating is something I wish there was more of these days. In his book, Forman goes through some computations based on prices of chairs and “flags” (the rushes for seat-weaving) to arrive at how many seats a weaver could produce in a day.
” …an efficient bottomer might have been expected to complete perhaps nine seats in a long, seventeenth-century working day. While we may assume that this sort of work could be done by anyone without particular skills, we know that at least in one instance an “old and decayed” turner, Henry Fane of Boston, was bottoming chairs in the year 1672 when he was 83.”
Forman was up a tree – there’s no way you can weave 9 seats in even a long day. And the notion that it could be done by “anyone without particular skills” is just plain offensive. Forman should have spoken to someone who had woven seats. Lawrence Neal does it exceptionally well – as did his father Neville Neal. https://www.instagram.com/lawrencejneal/?hl=en
Here’s Jan (or Caspar?) Luyken, 1690s showing a Dutch chairmaker’s shop, preseumably in Amsterdam. No way to tell from here if that seat-weaver is “old and decayed” – but fascinating to think about old Henry Fane in Boston weaving those seats at 83.
One type of chair that I learned about from Alexander and Bob Trent is what we now call a “board-seated turned chair.” I showed one of mine here on the previous post. The seat is a beveled board that fits in grooves in the seat rails. Below I’m putting the seat in during the assembly of one in 2018.
A few things line up to make this happen. The seat rails are all at the same height, unlike the staggered-height rungs on turned chairs with woven seats. So those rails’ tenons intersect. Like this 3-legged version I did – a 3/4″ diameter round tenon piercing a rectangular tenon:
Another factor is the size of those seat rails – to accommodate those intersecting tenons, they’re beefy. The examples above are
1 3/4″ in diameter. Which in turn means the posts are bulky too, over 2″ in diameter. Furthermore, the groove for that seat –
I only know how to do that with a plow plane. No reason to think of another method. Except that turners (i.e. chairmakers) in London were not supposed to use the plow plane, by regulations established separating their work from joiners’ work.
1633 We have called before us as well the Master & Warden of the Compy of Turners as also the M & W of the Compy of Joyners. It appeareth that the Compy of Turners be grieved that the Compy of Joyners assume unto themselves the art of turning to the wrong of the Turners. It appeareth to us that the arts of turning & joyning are two several & distinct trades and we conceive it very inconvenient that either of these trades should encroach upon the other and we find that the Turners have constantly for the most part turned bed posts & feet of joyned stools for the Joyners and of late some Joyners who never used to turn their own bedposts and stool feet have set on work in their houses some poor decayed Turners & of them have learned the feate & art of turning which they could not do before. And it appeareth unto us by custom that the turning of Bedposts Feet of tables joyned stools do properly belong to the trade of a Turner and not to the art of a Joyner and whatsoever is done with the foot as have treddle or wheele for turning of any wood we are of the opinion and do find that it properly belongs to the Turner’s and we find that the Turners ought not to use the gage or gages, grouffe plaine or plough plaine and mortising chisells or any of them for that the same do belong to the Joyners trade.
Henry Laverock Phillips, Annals of the Worshipful Company of Joiners of the City of London, (London: privately printed, 1915) pp. 27, 28.
All that really means is one of a few things. One possibility is these chairs were not made in London. Or they were, and people ignored the rules. Or the turners who made them paid a fine for using the plow plane (when caught) – or they jobbed that part out to the joiners. We’ll never know, nor does it matter. Interesting again that there’s a mention of a poor “decayed” turner, this time in joiners’ shops showing them how to turn parts.
Some brief background to these recent blog posts. For many years my work included lots of research and writing on the overall subject of 17th-century furniture and furniture-makers. And I loved it, the subject still holds my attention all these years later. I don’t do much of that research anymore – but I still have piles and piles of reference materials on the shelves and hard drives here. Usually my blog posts are written around photos I shoot in the shop, but lately I haven’t been taking many pictures. Mostly because I’m building the same cupboard I built last year so mostly have it covered. So I got on this string of posts lately and there’s lots of fodder for more.
Jan and Caspar Luyken’s Book of Trades https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Het_Menselyk_Bedryf_(%22The_Book_of_Trades%22)
and with Alexander, on post & rung chairs https://chipstone.org/article.php/581/American-Furniture-2008/Early-American-Shaved-Post-and-Rung-Chairs