A deceptively well-engineered furniture style whose parts are assembled mainly from wooden sticks, Windsor represents one of history’s most innovative and recognizable furniture designs. The Windsor family of furniture consists of stools, chairs, cradles, stands, and tables. Chairs are the largest category with eight different basic forms, such as comb-backs, step-downs, and the sack-back version, which is featured beginning on page 70. Chairs also spawned nine derivatives that include stools, rocking chairs, writing armchairs, and child-sized chairs.
The origin of Windsors is ancient history. Their antecedents can be attributed to the Egyptians, where tomb drawings of the 18th Dynasty depict workmen sitting on three-legged hand-hewn stools socketed to a plank seat. The reason for the name Windsor is something of an enigma, but the most logical explanation is that they were named during the first decade of the 18th Century after the English town of Windsor, whose beech trees provided a plentiful supply of raw material for legs and other turned parts.
Windsor chairs improved on the traditional joiner’s chairs of the period by eliminating the need to glue-up seat frames. In a Windsor chair, the seat is a solid plank serving as the foundation for the legs and stretchers and for the spindle back. That simplicity and strength of design is no doubt one of the keys to the chair’s undying popularity and longevity.
Windsor chair making started as a cottage industry in England during the 1720s, but soon became an important factory-based operation, employing hundreds of workers, centered in the town of High Wycombe. Although the first Windsors in America were chairs imported from England, Philadelphia chair makers almost immediately capitalized on this popular new form of easily made seating. Their one-man shops expanded into large factories.
English chair makers took advantage of the physical properties of different woods for different components of the chairs, using ash for bent parts, beech for turnings, and elm for seats. Their American counterparts used hickory, red oak or ash for bending, maple for turnings, and pine for seats. Windsors were traditionally painted green, but other colors such as blue, mustard and red were also used. The paint concealed the different wood colors and served to protect the wood outdoors, while conveying a unifying wholeness to the piece. Many English chairs were simply dip stained.
Now retired, Dr. John Kassay taught furniture design for 30 years at San Francisco State University. His Book of Shaker Furniture, published by the University of Massachussetts Press, is considered one of the foremost reference books on Shaker style. He is currently preparing a similar book on Windsor furniture for the same publisher. He lives in San Bruno, California.
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