A ladder back chair from Connecticut, c. 1790-1815, found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania:
An exercise in research, eBay, Photoshop, and country furniture.

I've been browsing the various furniture areas on eBay recently. I like antique furniture, I enjoy the search, and there's a part of me right now that really wants to be done with school, get a nice full time job, settle down, fix up a house and fill it up with stuff.

Ok. So I like stuff. With a definite preference for good stuff. Good stuff within my relatively small budget. This places considerable limits on my habit, which is just as well, given my general lack of space. Most significant has been the realization that there is lots of good furntiure available at reasonable prices, if one is able to pick it up, as much furniture is difficult to ship through normal channels.

Much of the furniture I've bid on has been in the Cleveland area, within a 60 mile radius of home. But gradually, I've been tempted by things which are farther and farther away. Bidding on things that are farther and farther away, not really intending to win, but most willing to follow through if I should happen to have the winning bid.

Found a nice, early 20th century keyhole desk, about 50 miles from home, cheap, which encouraged my habit. Started bidding on other things, continually consulting an atlas and Yahoo Maps, trying to justify the drive. Looking at the costs of shipping, making judgements as to what was authentic, what was fake, and what was too mucked up to tell.

I began working with the dark, muddy images that sellers put up, in Photoshop, to see if I might find something amazing that was just badly photographed. And I kept bidding. Mostly low bids, just so that I could keep an eye on the furniture, as I had quickly surpassed the 30 items that eBay allows one to watch at a given time. I was generally outbid quickly, eliminating any concern that I might actually be the high bidder and have to figure out where to put these objects.

Then I noticed a group of things listed by a seller in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Nice antique furntiure in somewhat rough condition. Quite a few chairs, but also many nice picture frames, as well as some other items. I was most taken by ladderback armchair with a rush seat, which the seller advertised as being from the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania area, circa 1790 - 1810, with the suggestion that it might be much earlier.

The chair had nice lines, and I really wanted to believe that it was earlier, that I had found and would get an incredible bargain on a really Early American chair. So I put in a bid. And then later, a day before the auction was to end, I put in another, outbidding the high bidder. It was a bit above the limit I had set for myself, but I was relatively certain that I would be outbid anyway.

The next day, the auction ended, and I was the high bidder. Lititz was a bit farther from Hagerstown, Maryland, than I had thought. And schoolwork and work might make it more difficult to get there. I made arrangements with the seller, promising to pick up the chair within the month, with the hopes that I might win some of the other nice furniture he was selling. No such luck.

Thanksgiving, I made the journey to Funkstown, Maryland, to be with my girlfriend.

On that bright fall Sunday, we made the journey to Lititz, Pennsylvania, to pick up the chair. The temperature was just right, as was the mood. The road led us past farms and old houses, and a bit too much time on a highway, too.

Eventually, we made it to Litiz, stumbled around town, and found the house. The chair was sitting there on the porch. I looked it over and sat on it. It was not quite what I was expecting - though now, I am not sure what that was. The cane was in rough shape, and old. The joints were loose. Audrey was definitely skeptical. I was happy.

I thanked the owner, loaded the chair into my van, and began the drive back to Funkstown, Maryland. We stopped at some antique stores on the way, and generally had a nice drive. And I continued thinking about the chair.

A couple days later, back in Cleveland, I showed the chair to my father. He was clearly interested, and was able to provide considerable insight with regard to the chair.

The following are the results of my father's insights, as well as my own research.

The chair is 34 inches high, with the posts tapering as they go upward. It is 26 inches wide at the font, and 18.5 inches wide at the back. The seat is 12.5 inches high. The arms are 12 inches above the seat, set back about 5 inches from the front of the chair.

At first observation, it is a puzzling piece of furniture. Most striking is that it is rather wide and short and that the arms are not attached directly to the front legs. It is called a ladder back (or ladderback) chair due to the horizontal slats that make up the back of the chair, similar to the manner of a ladder.

This chair was made by someone who was not a cabinetmaker. This is evidenced by the way the supports for the arms are not turned evenly - the turning on the right arm does not exactly match the turning on the left - indicating that the person who turned it was most likely just eyeballing it and not the most skilled with the lathe.

The chair was most likely originally higher than it is now - though the rest of the proportions seem correct for a chair of the period, the legs seem too short. However, since this chair was likely made for a specific person, it could have just been crafted to their needs. The feet are balls, turned, that appear to have had some additional part protruding downward.

At first it appeared that the third, top board of the back of the chair had been replaced at some point. However, observation leads to the conclusion that this the original board, but with the top, curved part of it broken off. This is inferred because the top board still has the starting of the curve, and the top was not cut as smooth as the other two pieces of wood. Given the amount of wear to the top, this was either broken early in the chair's life or sanded after the piece was broken off.

There appear to have been finials on the back posts of the chair, which probably broke off early in the chair's life. There was also a lower front rung, which, with the chair's present height, would be amost touching the ground.

The arms of the chair were upholstered, likely in a manner similar to some Chippendale chairs of the same period. This is obvious due to the small size of the arms and the rows of tacks and nails on their sides, as well as the general shape of the arms, as seen below, with the front of the chair on the left side of the page:

       /  -------------------------- 

There are two rails on the sides, below the seat, the higher of the two which support for the arms goes all the way down to, and on the right side, through, to an inch or so below. There is a single rail at the back of the chair, beneath the seat, near the floor, at the same height as the one in front would be at.

The rush seat, though well worn, is still strong, though not in a condition that it should be sat on on any regular basis. The rush is either original or very early. The rush seat is woven around the chair, not a separate seat frame that would be rested on the chair. In the areas where some of the rush is missing, one can see the octagonal shape of the frame, hewn by hand, and not finished round, because it would not normally be seen.

The wood of the chair, especially the front legs, shows some worming, giving some proof to the age of the chair. The wear that would be expected with a chair of this age is present - there is some abrasion due to use at all the extremeties.

This chair was obviously well used. It has developed a nice patina, and is unique in that it is relatively unmolested. Though it has considerable wear, it does not appear to have been repaired or restored at any point.

At first, I thought, as the seller suggested, that it might have been an earlier chair, in the William and Mary style, as the general shape was more consistent with those chairs, but the proportions and the style are simply not consistent with a chair made in 1725.

From the sources available, it seems that this chair was likely made in Connecticut, between 1790 and 1815, though chairs of these proportions were more popular in Ontario, Canada, during the same period. The specemins in Ontario tend to be more ornate and display more Chippendale details. It is important to keep in mind that at the time, Connecticut was a rather backwater place, so it seems a reasonable provenance for a country chair.

About 80% of the examples of chairs of this style that I was able to locate were rocking chairs. This lends considerable merit to the idea that this chair might have originally been a rocking chair, although the bottoms of the legs do not seem to show any indictions of this. Either way, the legs were definitely shortened.

I have not been able to locate any sources that show chairs of this style or similar styles with upholstered arms.

All in all, it is a wonderful piece of sculpture and a nice historical object, and really not something for sitting in. The amount of work required to make it a good sitting chair would destroy much of what makes it so special right now, and for the cost of having that work properly done, one could buy a far more comfortable chair.

Some images of the chair may be viewed, for a while, at http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=2571277379.

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