Collecting Mania: Comb-Back Windsor Chairs

The first Windsor chair style adapted by American craftsmen still holds a special place in our hearts and homes. The comb-back chair was the earliest Windsor style reproduced in the Colonies. The comb-back sparked this country's Windsor chair revolution. Brought to Philadelphia by way of England in the 1730's, the basic stick-and-socket design - in which legs, arms, and back spindles are anchored by a solid plank seat - was enthusiastically copied and ultimately reinvented by Colonial furniture makers, who marketed the modestly priced chairs for use both indoors and out.

By 1760, demand for comb-back armchairs (so called for the form of the back, which resembles a lady's hair comb) was booming. The "revolution" had begun. Craftspeople in furniture-making centers outside Philadelphia (including New York City, Newport, and Boston) were quick to pick up the torch, reinterpreting the comb-back style well into the 19th century. More than 250 years after its introduction, the American comb-back remains valued for its graceful form, sturdy construction, surprising comfort, and remarkable versatility. Recent interpretations on this classic wooden chair keep it a familiar sight in kitchens, parlors, dining rooms, dens, and offices across the country.

American versions of the comb-back are generally distinguished by their slender spindles, splayed legs, and a contoured plank seat, but regional variations, the artisan's personal touch, and the effects of aging make each antique Windsor unique. Look for subtle variations in design, including seat shapes, turning on the legs, and decorative "ears" and "knuckles" on the back crest rail and at the end of each arm.

Historically, several varieties of hard- and softwoods were combined in a single Windsor chair, which was often painted one solid color to create a uniform appearance. Stenciling and freehand decoration sometimes adorned arms and crest rails to create "figured" or "fancy" chairs. Original paint greatly increases the value of an antique Windsor.

Because this was such a popular style, antique Windsor chairs are plentiful, and relative bargains can be found (though prices for some rare and distinctive comb-backs soar). Windsor chair production has really never ceased in the United States, and today many U.S. firms are dedicated to keeping the tradition alive. Prices for comb-back Windsors range from about $750 (for a refinished 19th-century chair) to $10,000 or more (for an 18th-century chair with original paint).

Windsor chairs were originally used both outside and in, and they're often depicted on porches and in gardens in Colonial-era drawings. In fact, comb-back armchairs were George Washington's favorite, and by 1800 he had several dozen Windsors on the piazza of Mount Vernon. That is interesting in and as of itself as the First President did not use chairs when he worked on the nation's business. It is a little known fact that George Washington worked at a stand up desk as he preferred to take care of his paperwork while standing bolt upright. Another little known fact about President Washington was that he almost never slept the entire night through, but preferred to take several catnaps every day as he felt it kept him more refreshed and alert!

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