“I do not get your weird chairs,” exclaim about a dozen messages or comments every year.
I understand your bewilderment.
I remember being a prospective student at Northwestern University in 1985 where I had been paired up with freshmen journalism students. We were supposed to sleep in their dorm rooms and see what university life was like.
My two hosts sat me down on a bed and thrust a Budweiser in my hands.
“Drink it,” they said. “And you’re drinking 10 more. You are getting drunk. Maybe we’ll drag you outside naked.”
Up until that point in my life I had taken one sip of beer. It had been my dad’s Coors Light, which had been poured over ice at the beach during a vacation. It was memorably disgusting.
I took a sip of the Budweiser, and I can still remember the metallic and bitter liquid spreading through my mouth and snaking down my gullet.
Beer is objectively nasty stuff. It’s basically watery bread. Fermented starch. And flavored with a bitter plant (hops) or worse.
I did not “get” this weird drink, and I took about four sips of it that night, each one warmer and worse than the previous. I did not end up naked and drunk in the quad.
Now 37 years after that fall evening, I have changed my mind about beer. I am endlessly curious about the different forms of the drink and enjoy learning about its role in our culture and history. After listening to a podcast about beer in Biblical times, I was struck by the parallels between the history of the beverage and of the vernacular stick chairs I have been studying and building for many years.
I suppose these parallels shouldn’t have been a surprise. The stories of many good things in our world have a similar arc. And the turning point in the story’s third act is always the Industrial Revolution.
But it’s a good story, and it helps explain my love for both hops and these funky chairs that are “a smidgen off being ugly,” according to chairmaker Chris Williams.
For most of human history, beer was something you made at home. Everyone was a brewer. Beer was a source of nutrition and hydration. But ancient beer was unlikely to taste like the stuff you buy today. For a long time the role of yeast wasn’t understood. And hops – the most common added flavor today – weren’t always used. Honey and other spices were common.
Commercial production of beer might have been an innovation of the Ancient Egyptians (you can read a history of beer and business here, which is where much of the following business data comes from). But up until the mid-19th century, most brewers were local businesses. There were no national or international brands of beer.
The rapid industrialization of the West allowed beer to be produced on a large scale and homogenized. Prohibition wiped out most of the local and regional brewers. And by the 1970s, 75 percent of all the beer in the United States was produced by only four monster corporations.
The product also kind of sucked. Coors Light over ice?
And while those macro brewers still exist (and are still growing through acquisition and consolidation), there has been a remarkable renaissance in small- and mid-sized brewers. In 1980, there were only 92 breweries in the U.S. As of 2021, there were 9,247 breweries. A hundredfold increase.
Plus beer as a beverage is far more interesting and diverse these days.
The history of stick chairs is not as long as the history of brewing (as far as we know). But it also has some wild twists and turns.
The first image of a stick chair that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws from the 12th or 13th century called “Laws of Hywel Dda.” There are two images of stick chairs shown in this particular Latin translation. My favorite one shows a judge in the stick chair, and he’s pointing with one hand. His other hand holds what is likely a book (but which I prefer to think of as a cup of beer for the purposes of this story).
Stick chairs have been around for hundreds of years before mass manufacturing. We suspect that most were made by farmers in the off-season, so it was a household enterprise, much like making beer. Judging from the surviving examples, they were made by crafty individuals who likely made the chairs for their nuclear or extended family. Or for people in their village.
Because each stick chair is unique – I’ve never seen two that are identical – we can conclude that they were likely made one-by-one. Or in small sets at most. There are variations in the chairs that can place them in certain time periods or in certain regions. But there’s little to no evidence that these chairs were even a highly organized commercial endeavor. (Irish Gibson chairs might be the exception.)
These vernacular chairs show up in many countries throughout Scandinavia and the UK. And stick chairs could be the ancient ancestor of Forest chairs (aka Windsor chairs).
Regardless of the shape or strength of that family tree, Windsor chairs appeared in the early 18th century and rapidly became a commercial enterprise that employed hundreds and then thousands of people. The city of High Wycombe became Britain’s primary chairmaking region. But the chairs were manufactured all over the UK and were a major export for the country.
The Windsor chair became so successful that today it is widely regarded as the most common form of chair.
“It’s been said that half of all wooden chairs on the planet are either Windsors or are directly descended from the style,” according to the Magazine Antiques.
While there are exceptions, most mass-produced Windsor chairs are unremarkable firewood and share little or nothing with their ancient ancestors – except for a name.
Evidence: All of the broken chairs that have been dragged across my doorstep have been factory-made Windsors. (I decline all chair-repair requests from customers – not because I am a jerk, but because chair repair could easily consume all of my waking hours.)
These factory-made Windsors are the Coors Light of the woodworking world.
Just like with the world of beer, however, things began to improve for the world of handmade chairs in the 1970s and 80s. Mike Dunbar and Dave Sawyer began exploring Windsor forms, and both began teaching others, planting the seeds for thousands of other chairmakers. John Brown self-published his “Welsh Stick Chairs” book, which began to sketch in the early history of chairs from his part of the world.
And now we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to chairmaking instruction and tools. Well-made Windsor chairs and stick chairs are much easier to find. And the chairs are available at a variety of price points.
Plus there are now a lot of talented chairmakers out there that I have never heard of – and I try to keep up.
I get the same feeling when I visit my local beer store. The shelves are brimming with interesting beers from all over the country. I’ve heard of maybe 10 percent of them. There is so much good stuff out there to try.
It’s quite amazing, really. Well, that is until I look across the aisle of the store and see the mountains and mountains of Coors Light there, too.
— Christopher Schwarz