May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
The traditional Boston rocker was once described by the pioneer American furniture historian Wallace Nutting as “the most popular chair ever made, which people sit in, antiquarians despise and novices seek.” What distinguishes the classic Boston rocker from other rocking chairs are its gracefully scrolled seat, high spindled back, spool turnings, and rolling crest and headpiece. The first Boston rockers, which were as likely to have come from Connecticut as from Boston, were made of oak with solid pine seats. Like the one shown here, the early, handcrafted versions were painted and grained black and often embellished with stenciled fruit and flower decorations.
The primary antecedent of the rocker was, of course, the cradle. Illuminated manuscripts from as far back as A.D. 1000 show babies in cradles being soothed by their gentle, rocking motion. But it took another six or seven centuries before it dawned on anyone to apply rockers to an adult’s chair. The exact time and place is unknown; the conceit has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but never with any real proof. It is commonly accepted, however, that the rocking chair was an American invention, perhaps the most quintessentially American furniture form ever invented.
Most rocking chairs made before the turn of the nineteenth century were simply conversions of conventional straight-back armless chairs—usually Windsor, banister back, or slat back with rockers added. Children’s chairs were probably the first, followed by the nurse chair. Small, armless, and low-seated, this chair usually was found in the bedroom, where it was convenient for nursing a baby. There was also the rocking Windsor settee, a benchcradle combination that permitted a mother to rock a baby and at the same time knit or do other chores.
Adult versions of rocking chairs at first were associated with the aged and infirm. But soon—especially with the growing popularity of open porches—people of all ages were rocking away. By the early 1800s chairmakers were producing rocking chairs and adding arms to improve their proportions. One of the most felicitous creations was the Boston rocker, which for the first time took comfort into consideration. Its seat curved up in the back and down in the front and had an edge more sympathetic to the legs. This was typical of the gradual movement of nineteenth-century furniture design toward more relaxed posture; in the wake of the rocker came reclining chairs, adjustable chairs, spring-seated chairs, lounges, and finally, in the 1870s, the hammock. But the rocking chair in particular seemed to attain an American golden mean—the combination of relaxation and movement, allowing users to “remain mobile even in repose,” as one writer put it. This was a time when America (never, even in colonial days, a static society) was at its most mobile—geographically, socially, and ideologically.
Many Europeans couldn’t understand the American addiction to rockers. In fact, some visitors considered the new contraptions positively bizarre, if not almost immoral. In 1835 an English visitor wrote of the profusion of rockers she found on the steamer Charles Carroll : “Others sit lazily in a species of rocking chair—which is found wherever Americans sit down—cradling themselves backwards and forwards, with a lazy, lounging, sleeping air, that makes me long to make them get up and walk.”
Her ascerbity was echoed three years later by the British traveler Harriet Martineau: “In these small inns the disagreeable practice of rocking in the chair is seen in its excess. In the inn parlors are three or four rocking chairs in which sit ladies who are vibrating in different directions and at various velocities, so as to try the head of a stranger. How this lazy and ungraceful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine, but the nation seems so wedded to it, that I see little chance of its being forsaken.”
From 1830 to 1890 the Boston rocker was the standard American rocking chair. Its popularity spread from New England across the nation, and it was exported to France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, China, and India. The earliest versions were handcrafted, but after 1840 Boston rockers were mass-produced by many makers. The best known was Lambert Hitchcock of Connecticut.
The rocking chair twice played a part in American presidential history. It became an enduring symbol of the John F. Kennedy White House, but its role in the last moments of Abraham Lincoln’s life is not so well known. When Lincoln arrived at Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865, weary from a long cabinet meeting, a rather worn rocking chair was taken out of storage in the manager’s office and brought up to the President’s box in hopes of making him more comfortable as he watched the performance. Lincoln was sitting in this homely piece of furniture when John Wilkes Booth fired his fatal shot.