With its vigorous turned spindle construction and colorful history, the Windsor is a familiar and versatile piece of early American furniture. Unquestionably, the form lent itself to almost limitless variations, yet the basic chair was simple: a shaped seat supported by turned legs, with a spindled back held gracefully in place by a medial stretcher and plank headboard or a slender, continuous bow. The exceptionally proportioned whole definitely exceeds the sum of its parts.
“A good Windsor looks as if it has the ability to just get up and walk away,” says Andy Abello, a maker of fine period chairs whose work was recently shown at an exhibition of Windsor Chairs at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Edgecomb. “There’s movement there, a liveliness that is undeniable when you see a good one.”
The Windsor has been identified as “the first garden furniture” in endless accounts. But the chairs, benches, and settees that became the furniture of choice during the late colonial and early Federal periods were far more than a historical counterpart of the Adirondack chair. First of all, Windsors were far more versatile. Depending on how the chair was constructed, a Windsor could be a side or arm chair, a bench, a dining chair, an easy chair, a desk chair, or even a writing desk.
The identification of the Windsor chair as a piece of garden furniture comes from various descriptions of country gardens on landed English estates in the early 1700s. Curiously, some of the descriptions don’t sound much like the pieces we consider Windsors today. An account from 1715, for example, describes a Windsor chair as a swiveling seat “contriv’d to turn round any way,” according to Nancy Goyne Evans in American Windsor Chairs (Hudson Hills Press, 1996). Another account quoted by Evans, written by Daniel Defoe about 1725, describes a chair at Windsor Castle as “a small seat, fit for One, or but Two at the most, with a high Back and Cover for the Head, which turns so easily, the whole being fix’d on a Pin of Iron . . .”
Intriguingly, one source for the connection between English Windsors and 18th-century gardens comes from a 19th-century writer. Edward Hazen, writing in The Panorama of Professions and Trades in 1836, notes that “the Windsor chair seems to have been first used for a rural seat in the grounds about Windsor castle, England; hence its name.”
No matter what the connection between garden seating and the emergence of chairs with turned legs and stick backs, the term “Windsor” was in popular use in London by the 1720s. These early chairs had evolved out of stick-and-socket furniture, which had been made for centuries. (Stick-and-socket furniture is the basis for simple stools with “stick” or turned legs and flat or slightly shaped seats.)
In 1730, a newspaper advertisement offered for sale “all sorts of Windsor garden chairs, of all sizes, painted green or in the wood.” The reference to sizes indicates that the proprietor sold chairs with and without arms, and settees of varying length, Evans writes. Then as now, chairs were left outside to weather naturally, or “in the wood.”
The first English Windsors may have been imported to colonial America as early as 1726, when a Pennsylvania governor appointed by the Penn family arrived from England. (The governor’s 1736 estate inventory included a reference to five Windsor chairs, Evans writes.) But these imported Windsors more likely resembled Hepplewhite chairs from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide than the colonial American designs that began to emerge in centers like Philadelphia during the 1740s.
Because only highly skilled cabinet- and chair-makers could produce them, these early colonial Windsors were initially the province of the wealthy. By the 1760s and 1770s, the production of Windsor chairs had become a cottage industry: Hand-shaved spindles were jobbed out, and designs began to proliferate, although most originated in Philadelphia. One early Philadelphia design, the high-back Windsor, borrowed elements of refined Chippendale style in its composition. The continuous-bow Windsor—a style where the spindles are held in place by a single bent backing piece—didn’t emerge until about 1789, Evans writes.
Because it was costly to produce, the American Windsor was primarily used indoors. Between 1750 and about 1775, most were in the possession of the prosperous upper class—portraitist John Singleton Copley posed several wealthy clients in Windsor chairs during this period. The cost of a Windsor chair was nearly twice that of rush-bottomed seating, according to Evans.
The last half of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th were the high point of Windsor innovation in America. Details like extended arm grips or forward-scroll arms are intensely regional, and often indicate where the piece was made, or even the chair-maker who created it. By the 1790s, the Windsor had reached the status of a mass-market item: Windsor designs outsold all other types of seating. In the last decade of the 18th century, more bow-back Windsors were constructed than any other chair; writing-arm and rockers also appeared in this decade.
“Fancy” painted Windsors were an early 19th-century innovation, when chairs and settees adorned with guilloche and rope borders or swagged with floral, star, or fruit motifs reached their style apex in 1810s New York. Bamboo work, characterized by segmented legs with pronounced swells and hollows, also emerged about this time.
Thanks to such mechanical innovations as the water-powered lathe and the circular saw, Windsor production remained popular during the first half of the 19th century. But increasing mechanical innovation also meant it was easier to develop new styles and modes of seating. By the Civil War, the Windsor was considered passé. Its vigorous ingenuity lay dormant only for a few decades, when the Windsor became one of the most popular rediscoveries of the new Colonial Revival.