Editor’s note: The following is a draft chapter from “The Stick Chair Book,” due out later this year. I just wanted to give Peter Galbert a heads up that we’re changing every reference to “Windsors” in “Chairmaker’s Notebook” (just kidding). This piece has been updated to reflect ongoing changes in the manuscript.
When people see a stick chair for the first time, a typical response is to call it a “primitive Windsor.” Unfortunately, every syllable of that expression is incorrect.
And that’s OK. We live in a world where the term “Windsor” has expanded like a gas to mean almost any piece of furniture where stick-y components are mortised into a plank – Windsor table, Windsor stool, Windsor bench, Windsor printer stand.
It does make you wonder: Where did this furniture come from? A place called Windsor?
As furniture historians point out, the origin of the word “Windsor” to describe a class of chairs is complicated and has yet to be definitively settled.
So let’s start at the beginning. Furniture where legs are tenoned into a plank – what is sometimes called “staked furniture” – goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Three-legged staked stools with beautifully curved legs and a saddled seat have been found at Thebes (1400 BCE). And the National Museums of Scotland has a similar one from the same time period.
Staked furniture of all kinds shows up in Western paintings and drawings through most of human history. Stools, benches and tables are the most common forms. So, the idea of putting sticks into a slab of wood is at least 3,400 years old.
What I’m interested in, of course, is this: When did people start making chairs this way?
The simple question is complicated a bit by language. The term “stool” can sometimes mean a “backstool,” which is a stool with a backrest that is a solid board or an array of sticks. Some people consider a backstool a “chair” and not a stool. So that clouds the timeline. Old writings that mention “stools” might actually mean “backstools” and those might be chair-like.
The earliest stick chair – legs, seat, arms and backrest – that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws that dates from the late 12th century or the middle 13th century. The book is the “Laws of Hywel Dda”; the chairs are drawn in a particular copy that was written in Latin instead of Welsh (this copy is referred to as the “Peniarth MS 28”).
The book is illustrated and has two images of important men sitting in chairs (one is at the beginning of this chapter). Both appear to be armchairs. Both chairs have tapered legs below the seat. One has sticks under its arms, and the other has four shapes below the arm. The shapes could be cut-outs in a solid plank. Or the shapes could be objects holding up the arm.
John Brown, who coined the term “Welsh stick chairs” when he wrote the book of the same name, insisted that the word “Windsor” didn’t apply to these sorts of chairs.
“Welsh Windsor chairs sounds to me like saying Welsh Scottish oatcakes, or Welsh Wexford glass” he wrote. “The chairs I am writing about are very definitely Welsh, and they are called stick chairs in Wales. They do, however, fulfil exactly the definition of what has come to be known, in Britain and the United States, as Windsor chairs. My judgement is to stay true to my original thoughts; only time will tell if I am mistaken.”
So if early stick chairs aren’t Windsors, where did Windsor chairs come from?
First, let’s dispense with the myth about the origins of Windsor chairs that gets repeated in popular culture.
“The most popular meaning stems from the story which describes how George III was caught in a rainstorm near Windsor,” writes Ivan G. Sparkes in “The English Country Chair” (1973). “Taking refuge in a cottage, His Highness sat on the best chair in the room and being well pleased with its comfort, required similar ones to be made for Windsor Castle. Unfortunately for this theory, the style existed and was so called long before the Georges came to the throne of England!”
Another (slightly more plausible) theory appears in “Popular Technology; or Professions and Trades. Hazen’s Panorama” (1846) by Edward Hazen.
“The Windsor chair seems to have been first used for a rural seat in the grounds about Windsor castle, England; whence its name. It was originally constructed of round wood, with the bark on; but the chair-makers soon began to make them of turned wood, for the common purposes of house-keeping.”
I do like that this theory hints that bark-on sticks played a part in the history of the Windsor and they were originally outdoor chairs.
In the last decade or so, historians have used probate inventories and paintings to present a clearer picture of the origin of the term. The best synopsis of the current thinking was published in Regional Furniture, Vol. XXIV, by Robert F. Parrott in 2010.
The most interesting part of the evidence are two inventories taken two years apart of the same household, one in 1721 and the other in 1723. The first inventory was for the husband who died of a stroke; in the listing of the equipment for the garden are “Forty eight Forrest Chairs.” Two years later there is another inventory, and in the section on garden equipment are listed 60 “Windsor” chairs. Presumably these are the same chairs, but the household has bought another dozen.
“Presumably therefore, the type of seat originally described as a ‘Forrest’ chair sometimes went under the alternative name of a ‘Windsor’ chair,” Parrott writes. “This, then, may be another reason why the early history of the Windsor has been so difficult to ascertain.”
We don’t know exactly what these early chairs looked like, but we have some clues. Since the 1970s, several early chairs have shown up at auction houses, at the Victoria & Albert Museum and through some sleuthing. These chairs are far simpler than the typical later English Windsor and could be a stylistic link between stick chairs, Windsor chairs and American Windsor chairs.
These early chairs share many characteristics with stick chairs. There are no stretchers – the strut legs are simple turnings. There is no backsplat – a very common feature on English Windsors. And the ornamentation is incredibly restrained compared to later English Windsors. There is a simple scratched groove around the seat and the comb. The front posts under the arm have a little shape. But that’s about it for decoration.
As a maker of stick chairs, I contend these are the prettiest English Windsors I’ve ever seen. I am also struck by how much these early chairs resemble American comb-back Windsor chairs. It’s rare to see an American Windsor chair with a backsplat. And the rake and splay of the legs looks far more American than English.
It makes me wonder – and this is a bit of conjecture – if these early chairs inspired American makers.
John Brown also had some thoughts on this matter. He came to a slightly different conclusion.
“The oft repeated statement that American Windsors derive from the English chair could be in error,” Brown wrote. “For historical reasons, and because of similarities in design, there seems to be a more direct link between the Welsh chair and the American Windsor. Perhaps the English version is the cousin, and the Welsh chair is the father!”
So About that Name, ‘Windsor’
Once you know these chairs may have been called “Forrest” chairs, you have to wonder, why did the name switch to “Windsor?” Was it because the chairs were first made in a place named Windsor?
William Sergeant found evidence of the earliest-known maker of Windsor chairs in a village in Lincolnshire, which he discussed in a 2018 article in Regional Furniture. That maker, Joseph Newton of Fenton, placed an ad for “New-fashioned” Windsor chairs in July 1725.
Newton’s ad also mentions there are makers of these chairs in London. What’s important to know is that Newton’s shop was nowhere near Windsor Castle (it’s about 140 miles away).
Parrott and other historians have found connections between chairmaking activity near Windsor and where those articles went to London. But Parrott admits the link is still tenuous.
One possible theory for changing the name is that the term “Windsor” gave the form a royal flavor and is in line with the French naming furniture styles after kings (i.e. Louis XIV).
Or perhaps the name “Windsor” could have become popular first as an insult to the chairs, as Sparkes wrote in 1973.
“In the end I find myself agreeing with those writers who connect the origin of the name with the manufacture and sale of these chairs to the London dealers at the Windsor Market and along the main road from Windsor to London. For one can imagine the London chair dealers, used as they were to the finer mahogany and walnut products of the London workshops, referring in a derogatory way to the latest batch of beech chairs ‘up from Windsor’.”
Today the term “Windsor” gets applied to broad classes of furniture that have no connection to Windsor Castle. Or pieces that have nothing to do with the House of Windsor, which was founded in 1917, or the town of Windsor. It can be confusing.
At times I fantasize about a world that has switched back to the earlier and more evocative name for this distinctly English chair: Forrest Chair.
The term “Forrest” is far more descriptive of how the chairs were initially were used: as a seat for the outdoors. And, unlike the word “Windsor,” the term “Forrest” describes without a doubt where the chair came from.
And so, in this book – as a bit of a lark – I will refer to “Windsor” chairs as “Forrest” chairs.
I am certain this will catch on everywhere – just like Esperanto.
— Christopher Schwarz