How old is this Ladder Back Chair?

cslambertJuly 4, 2011

Hey folks,

I bought this chair recently because its well made and I wanted to practice re-caning on it. I've decided that I should look into its age and value a little more before i do that. What can you tell me from the photos?

Some things I've noticed:

Chair is made of maple and ash with a shellac finish

The rails are steam bent and tenoned into the back legs, and the top rail is pegged with wooden pegs.

one of the front stretchers is turned-- usually I've just seen simple dowels used for stretchers.

There are pegs in the front leg top ends from what i assume was the lathe mount used to turn them

The scribe lines for the mortises were left on the wood and made into decorative lines-- the back legs were tapered in the "mule ear fashion"

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Looks like a classic Shaker chair. The turned stretcher looks like 1900 give or take 10 years, but local variation could place it even later. The weave of the seat is very nice; I hope you can match it.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2011 at 7:49PM
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Practice re-caning on it?? What are you thinking! LOL (tongue in cheek)

That's an 1870's production chair! At most, I would use a little linseed oil on it, but other than that, I wouldn't touch it.

I'll forgo the Shaker history, but by the 1850-60's their unique styles and "clean" lines started to draw mass attention. By the 1870's, "mass production" (by their standards) was in it's hay-day. Techniques were developed in order to increase production, and the turned stretcher added in order to appeal to a wider market.

The scribe lines being another dead give-away. Rather than utilizing the skills of a master craftsman, their young sons were able to use a jig that would scribe all lines at once, while at the same time, add a bit more "mass appeal" (while concealing the use of less skilled craftmen).

They experienced great success, but like many small industries, died out during the depression.

It may not draw as much value as some of the "traditionally constructed" chairs during that time period, but still quite a valuable little chair, and most certainly, a unique part of Shaker history.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 2:57PM
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Thanks for the info-- I had a feeling it wasn't your typical primitive farm chair (not that I mind those in the least :-P).

I would love to know where you found this info-- the scribe line jig is a really convincing tidbit. Any books or online links you can recommend to point me to a similar example of this production chair?

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 6:20PM
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Lovely chair....but if you are familiar with shaker chairs, the first thing you will notice about yours is the turned rung, shaker chairs don't have turned pieces. The whole of the Shaker philosophy is simplicity....lack of ornamentation and turnings.
Secondly the shape of the back splats are not typical of Shaker chairs, and the general shape to my eye doesn't look "Shaker"...but just 19th century ladder back.....not that that's bad!!And I see no sign of the "Shaker tilt".
That said there were many Shaker communities and many can identify which community made a chair by the finials, and I am sure there were other variations as well.
It's a nice chair....but I see nothing that says "Shaker". It's not worth a mint....use it as a chair to practise the craft of seat weaving.
Linda C

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 9:59PM
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It could have been Shaker and then the bottom rail was replaced. I don't think it's very rare but it's a nice old piece.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 12:29PM
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I would respectfully disagree with Linda. The classical 'shaker tilt' was actually an evolution of a true shaker chair. I know what most folks envision when they think 'shaker', however, it's a bit limited of what some Shaker communities were putting out back in the day.

To qualify the use of 'shaker' a bit as well, to me it's not referring to a particular style so much as the community as a whole.

Some of the original chairs they produced actually had fully turned vertical posts and stretchers. They were boxy little devils and a real pain to sit in. lol

cslambert - To tell you the truth, I really don't recall where that little tidbit came from. I'm a fourth generation woodworker that started at age 4 pushing a broom and shoveling sawdust around the shop. My great grandfather started our family furniture business shortly after coming to America and handed down from father to son since the later 1800's.

I don't know if it was from a book, from one of our family excursions to check out designs to incorporate into our own furnitue, or one of those times when a chair came in for repair and I asked, 'grandpop... what the heck kind of chair is this?' lol

I did a 'very' cursory search and came up with a brief that referenced mass production done out of a Mount Lebanon community that you might find interesting.

I've run across folks from time to time that look at me like I'm crazy to even suggest that there where Shaker communities that turned to mass production to 'outsiders', so to those... please forgive me. I've been hit with a hammer more than a few times ;-)

Here is a link that might be useful: Brief history

    Bookmark   July 13, 2011 at 10:07PM
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You saying that the OP's chair is pre 1850? That's about the time when the turned stretchers were made and when they started with the "Shaker Tilt".

    Bookmark   July 14, 2011 at 1:18AM
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Not at all. It appears to be a production chair, and you didn't really see those until the 1870's. What I was trying to say was that there was no general memo sent out to all Shaker communities saying, "we're not doing that anymore... were only making chairs like this now". KWIM?

It was the "outsiders" who defined what a "Shaker chair" is and isn't. I wasn't trying to say that it is a "Shaker chair" by that definition. Just that it was a production chair made by Shakers.

If you also consider that there was a colonial revival goin on in the 1870's as well, it doesn't seem out of line at all that a particular community might add a few embelishments to generate more mass appeal to a simplified production chair.

If their goal was to place a "nice" little inexpensive chair around every famers table in the area... it's what I would have done. :-)

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 4:49PM
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I've been going to farm sales for close to 50 years....mostly in Iowa. As far as I know we never have had a Shaker community here....yet I have seen a gazillion of those chairs over the years. Bought some, sold them, re "seated" a couple....there may still be a couple hanging in the fruit cellar in my basement.
Not sure how you can say seemingly unequivocally it's a Shaker chair... the Amish, Mennonites, the Amana craftsmen all made similar chairs.....and the proportions and turnings speak to me strongly of something other than Shaker.

    Bookmark   July 17, 2011 at 8:49PM
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Well, I think the answer might be in a circa 1870's catalogue from RM Wagan & co... Wagan was the force behind the Mt. Lebanon mass production. This was widely printed and contained over 40 different choices for chairs. Ill try to get my hands on one.

Whatever the answer, I've seen a lot of ladderback chairs over the years as well, but this is the most comfortable and well crafted by far. Whoever made it really knew what they were doing.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2011 at 8:37AM
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