Collecting Mania: Wing Chairs
As one of the earliest and most preferred forms of American furniture, the wing chair - sometimes called the easy chair or fireside chair - is recognized easily by its protruding wings on either side, its great depth, its impressive appearance, and its plushly upholstered frame structure.
The first wing chairs appeared in America in the late 17th century, and gained popularity after 1725. Designs evolved over the centuries, with some overlapping of styles as itinerant cabinetmakers and wood-carvers carried with them skills and techniques learned in other parts of the country. In addition, American cabinetmakers often blended popular elements of an earlier style with those of a recently introduced form from England.
Many original wing chairs were sold to the public by the upholsterer rather than the cabinetmaker, and originally the upholstery accounted for more of the expense of a new chair than the wood and the cabinetmaker's labor combined. Each layer, from the supportive webbing to the outer fabric, had to be handwoven on a loom. In many instances the outer fabric of wool or silk was imported from the Orient or Europe. When the upholstery wore out, chairs were often discarded and replaced with factory-produced items that cost less than it would have cost to have an outdated wing chair re-covered. In a few rare instances, a vintage chair has retained its original 17th- or 18th-century upholstery. Most collectors only hope to find a fragment of the original upholstery still clinging to one of the tacks.
A surprising number of antique American wing chairs have survived. Age alone does not determine the value of a wing chair - two chairs from the same era can range in value from $2,500 to $250,000, depending on certain details.
The finest examples of American wing chairs represent a carefully thought-out and crafted combination of lines, curves, angles, and proportions. The back must be tilted at the proper angle for comfort. The height must be in proportion to the width - a back that is too tall makes the chair look and feel uncomfortable; one that is too low gives the chair a squatty appearance. The crest line should be graceful and attractive. The wings must emerge naturally from the crest line, flare at the proper angle, and meet the arms in a fluid motion. If the wings are flared too far, they resemble awkward ears; too little, and the chair takes on a boxy look.
Serious collectors won't demand original upholstery or even an original finish, but they will expect an entirely original framework. Unless they are convinced the upholstery is original, most advanced collectors won't purchase a wing chair unless the upholstery is removed. When it is, they will determine the age and authenticity of the chair by analyzing the types of wood they find, the color of the various boards, and the consistency of the tack holes. If the chair is authentic, each board will exhibit the same color, signs of age, and pattern of tack holes. The major eras are:
William and Mary (1690-1725)
The first wing chairs in the United States appeared during this era. Examples are extremely rare, and are found primarily in museums and exceptional private collections. Chairs in this style were heavily influenced by English models and are generally tall and narrow, often with massive turnings on the center stretcher.
Queen Anne (1725-1755)
The heavier William and Mary style gave way to a lighter look characterized by graceful curves. The cabriole leg flourished during the Queen Anne period.Queen Anne-stylewing chairs continued to be popular with colonists long after the Chippendale style was introduced from England.
The Chippendale wing chair is noted for its dramatic ball-and-claw feet. During this era, the chair's rigid pointed "knees" evolved into broader, rounder, and more graceful ones. In England, the knees on a Chippendale wing chair were apt to be carved; American cabinetmakers developed a less formal, more restrained style in which the knees were often left smooth.
Sheraton and Hepplewhite (1785-1820)
Although Sheraton and Hepplewhite wing chairs were produced in large numbers, truly great examples are considered rare. The majority simply are not as elegant as the finest Queen Anne and Chippendale wing chairs. During the subsequent Empire and Victorian eras, the size of the wings continued to shrink until they disappeared altogether, evolving into a smaller open chair.