Pa. museum show features vintage chairs

David Dunn, director of the Pennsylvania State Museum, with several historic chairs in the show.
David Dunn, director of the Pennsylvania State Museum, with several historic chairs in the show. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 01, 2014

HARRISBURG To most folks, a chair may be no more than a place to park your bum.

For others, they are objects of art and craftsmanship, symbols of technological innovation, or products that sustained a region's economy.

Pennsylvania boasts a rich heritage of chair-making, from the fine cabinetry of early Philadelphia furniture makers to the mass production of chairs in Union City, near Erie, a community once known as the "Chair Center of the World," and the Mad Men-era industrial design of modern furniture makers.

Visitors can stroll through the history of chairs with a Keystone State connection at the Pennsylvania State Museum's exhibit "Chairs From the Collection of the State Museum," on view through Apr. 27.

"Chairs say quite a bit about people. They're ubiquitous, and the chairs in the exhibit are a cross-section of the museum collection," said David Dunn, museum director and exhibit curator. "They reflect the social mores of Pennsylvania. They are a reflection of economic status, and they reflect the need for technology."

There are babies' high chairs, the Senate speaker's chair from the old Capitol, a barber's chair, a row of seats from long-gone Shibe Park - even an early space-age chair that rocketed "Monkeynaut" Miss Sam into orbit in 1960.

It was Dunn's idea to raid the museum's attic, containing about 1,000 chairs, and pick the best examples. He ended up with 99 chairs for the exhibit.

"The criteria was, I liked it, and it belonged to the museum," he said.

Not all the chairs were made in Pennsylvania, but you can bet someone once sat in them here, whether it was in the doctor's office or a theater, a grand estate or a cabin.

Dunn said the museum considered including an electric chair, but scrapped the idea because it didn't want that chair to overshadow the other pieces.

"We would like to put it in its proper context, such as an exhibit on the death penalty," said Dunn.

A mid-19th century "Mammy chair" is really a rocking bench with a removable board in the front of one side that serves to "cradle" the baby.

Strategically placed in the exhibit are historic advertisements from catalogs and newspapers touting the latest chairs and newest inventions.

The 18th century "chamber horse" is one such invention. It's a wild contraption in which springs were positioned below the seat so the user could bounce and burn some calories.

Before the migration of furniture companies to the South in the mid-20th century, Union City, though a tiny community, boasted more than a half-dozen chair factories.

"Pennsylvania long has been known for its bountiful forests and timbering," said Dunn, explaining what spawned the industry.

And, of course, there are the high-style chairs from two of the best known cabinetmakers in American history, both Philadelphians.

There is a 1780s Windsor chair by Francis Trumble, who made similar chairs for Independence Hall.

And there is Queen Anne side chair by William Savery from 1740 with its original label, noting the location of his shop, "a little below Market, in Second."

Winterthur Museum curator emeritus Wendy Cooper said while there were other talented craftsmen during the golden age of furniture making in Philadelphia, it was thanks to their labels that Savery and Trumble are famous today.

"These two men were both noted craftsmen, American artisans," said Cooper. "They happened to have labeled pieces, while hundreds of other craftsmen at the same time period, and after, made phenomenal pieces and did not sign them."

Just don't try to get too comfortable while touring the exhibit. The chairs proved too enticing for the first visitors and had to be cordoned off to ensure no contemporary bottoms touched the valuable pieces of Pennsylvania history.

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