Research on Antiques & Collectibles


Contributed by:

We are continually reminded of the danger of broad generalizations regarding American antiques. About the time we have definitely made up our minds, after years of observation, that furniture of a particular form or style never existed in colonial America, we are confronted by an example of the very type in question.

In this instance, the subject was the Windsor chair. Discussion had arisen as to whether Windsor chairs were ever upholstered in the eighteenth century, and we felt that they were not. There were many points against the possibility. Anyone who has settled down for any length of time in a well-designed and well-proportioned Windsor, with a good saddle seat, will agree that the chair is extremely comfortable. In fact, some people find them more comfortable than many of the upholstered chairs of the period. Then again, the Windsor in the late eighteenth century was a relatively inexpensive chair form, and the extra expense of upholstering would not have been justified. While all this was true generally, there was the exception.

For example, take a well-proportioned Windsor armchair and side chair, part of a set of which two armchairs and three side chairs survive. They are believed to have been made for Killian K. Van Rensselaer of Claverack, New York, who was born in 1763 and died in 1845, and was married to Margareta Sanders. Their importance is two-fold. Pieces of American eighteenth-century furniture with the original paper labels of their makers are extremely rare, and pieces still bearing the original upholsterer's label are practically non-existent. The obvious reason for this is that a paper label glued to a piece of fabric would easily fall off in time; even more likely, it would be torn off and discarded the first time the piece was reupholstered. In this set of Windsor chairs we have both the original maker's label and the original upholsterer's label.

Three of the chairs retain on the under side of the seats the paper labels of ‘John De Witt . . . Windsor Chair Maker . . . No. 47, Water-Street, Near . . . Coenties Slip, New York’. Even more important, one of the chairs still bears the printed label of ‘William W. Calatian . . . Upholsterer Sir Paper-Hanger . . . No. 10, Wall-Street, New York’.

Careful examination of the wood seat of one of these chairs proves that as originally made they were specifically intended to be upholstered. The seat was squared off along the front and sides and was left unpainted. The holes are present from the original double row of brass-headed nails at the top and bottom of the seat, such as are occasionally found as decoration on late eighteenth-century upholstered chairs and sofas. This fact, revealed when the present upholstery was removed, bears out information furnished by the previous owners who remembered the chairs having been covered in red leather with two rows of brass-headed nails.

That John De Witt was a good Windsor chairmaker is revealed by the chairs themselves. They all have a good, generous splay to the legs, very deep, bulbous turnings, continuous bow backs, and the armchairs have boldly raked arm supports. De Witt was commissioned by the committee in charge of remodeling Federal Hall in New York to make Windsors for this building; on November 14, 1796, the city paid him 29:14 "for Windsor Chairs for Senate and Assembly Rooms". In the January 22, 1798, edition of the Mercantile Diary and Advertiser he advertised:

"John De Witt, Windsor Chair Maker, begs leave to inform his friends and the public in general that he continues to carry on the above business in all its branches, at no. 47 Water-Street near Coenties-Slip, New York. Likewise, Garden Settees made in the neatest manner. Masters of Vessels may be supplied with either of the above articles in large or small quantities, at shortest notice. Punctuallity may be depended on."

Through the generous help of Dorothy Barck, librarian, and E. Marie Becker, reference librarian, of the New York Historical Society, I found that in 1794 he is listed in the New York City Directory as a "Turner" at 88 Whitehall Street and in 1795 as a "Chair Maker" at the same address. The same year he moved to 225 William Street. The Directory lists him as working at the 47 Water Street address only in 1796-1797; in 1798 he has moved to 442 Pearl Street, where he worked for three years.

William Galatian, who died July 6, 1848, at the age of 76, is listed in the New York City Directory from 1796 till 1840. He appears at the 10 Wall Street address on our labels, however, only during the year 1797. This fact is of utmost interest, since it fixes the date of our chairs to the year. If corroboration were needed, it appears in a date printed at the bottom of Galatian's label - May, 1797. Besides being important with regard to the upholstery, this date is an interesting indication that a chair with a type of turning generally considered to be of the 1770 period was obviously in fashion in such a cosmopolitan center as New York in 1797.

This evidence is sufficient proof that at least some Windsors were upholstered in the eighteenth century. However, to complete the picture, here is some documentary evidence establishing the fact beyond any shadow of a doubt, found on the following newspaper advertisement in the Maryland Journal for July 12, 1793:

"James Zwisler & Co. - Having established, in the vicinity of Baltimore-Town, a Manufactory for Dressing Leather as practiced in Turkey, take this method to acquaint the public, and their constant customers, that they have now finished, and for sale, at the Post-Office in South-Street, a quantity of red, green, yellow, blue and black, Morocco coloured Leather, at such reduced prices, as will make it worth the attention of those who want to purchase. They have likewise for Sale, a Variety of Arm and other Windsor Chairs and settees, the seats neatly stuffed and covered with red, green, yellow, blue and black Morocco coloured leather, of the above Manufactory."