- Historic Sites
The Legacy Of Craftsmen
AMERICAN DESIGN II THEY COMBINED BEAUTY AND UTILITY IN ORDINARY OBJECTS
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
No more completely comfortable chair has ever been designed than the upholstered wing chair, appropriately known to its contemporaries when it evolved in the late seventeenth century as the “easy” chair. From that day to the present, seating comfort has had to contend with the sometimes contrary and uncomfortable dictates of fashion.
The American Windsor chair, a lighter and more graceful form than its English counterpart, became one of the most popular articles of Colonial and Federal furniture. Benjamin Franklin owned two dozen, Jefferson ordered four dozen for Monticello, and in 1796 Washington bought twenty-seven (at $1.78 each) for the porch of Mount Vernon. Ladder-back chairs, of more venerable ancestry, also enjoyed widespread use and, like the Windsors, are still produced in modified forms. Chairs of simple design were readily mass-produced. In a single day’s sailing from Baltimore in 1827 twelve thousand chairs of all kinds were sent to points beyond the Horn.
Stoneware, made of finer clays than ordinary earthenware and kiln-fired at higher temperatures, was favored for utility wares in early America. Its hard body required “no other glazing … than what is produced by a little common salt strewed over the ware,” thus eliminating the menace of poisons attributed to the lead glazes of common pottery. Glass could be safely used for any practical purpose and could be blown, moulded, and pressed into colorful forms of unlimited and delightful variety.
Playthings have become so necessary a part of American life,” remarked one economist during the depression of the early iSgo’s, “that the trade in them has suffered the least of all by the hard times. Playthings are a luxury; but, even if there is retrenchment in the family, the children have to be amused as much as ever.” In 1808 another reporter noted that “iron banks … decoy poor, defenseless little children into dropping their hard-beggedfor pennies therein to see them work.” Significantly, savings and loan associations were springing up everywhere in the nation.
In the decades following the Revolution, American clockmakers de‘eloped a variety of distinctive and moderately priced models that won worldwide markets—even “to the ports of China.” By 1841, it was estimated, Connecticut alone was producing a half million clocks or more a year. Through highly mechanized production methods, a common shelf-clock case was made at a cost of less than fifty cents; the works were put together with massproduced interchangeable parts.