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Writing-arm Windsor chair

Origin: America, Virginia, Richmond
OH: 37 1/2" OW: 36 1/2" OD: 32 1/4"
Yellow pine, tulip poplar, oak, maple, and hickory.
Museum Purchase
Acc. No. 1994-50
Appearance: Spindle-back Windsor arm chair with flat, shaped crest rail and bamboo-turned legs; large writing surface joined to rear left stile and supported on bamboo- tuned spindles set into projection from seat.

Construction: The stiles and back spindles are round-tenoned into the crest rail; original cut nails reinforce the joints of the center spindle and each stile. The side spindles are round-tenoned through the right arm and the writing shelf assembly, both of which are square-tenoned through their respective stiles. All spindles, stiles, arm supports, and writing-shelf supports are round-tenoned into the seat board. The legs are joined to the seat board with round wedged through-tenons, and the stretchers are round-tenoned into the legs. The writing-shelf assembly consists of a shaped writing surface with a support board glued and nailed to the rear half of its underside. The dovetailed drawer has a flush-nailed bottom board and dadoed interior dividers. Thin strips nailed to the top edges of the drawer sides allow the drawer to hang from the rabbeted front edge of the support board and a corresponding one-piece nailed-on strip at the other side. A thin drawer stop is nailed to the underside of the writing surface on the side nearest the sitter.

Materials: Yellow pine writing surface, support board, and corresponding drawer support; tulip poplar seat, drawer stop, and all drawer parts; oak right arm; maple crest rail, legs, and stretchers; hickory spindles.
Label:In addition to conventional seating furniture, American Windsor chairmakers offered a variety of specialty designs, including "writing," or "secretary," chairs. Although such chairs were relatively rare in the South, Windsor makers in Petersburg and Richmond are known to have produced them. The strong similarity to a labeled writing chair built in 1802 by "ANDREW & ROBT. M'KIM, / At their Shop just below the Capitol, / RICHMOND" (MESDA acc. 3182) indicates that this imposing example was also made in that shop.

The key stylistic features shared by the labeled McKim chair and the CWF example include their seats, which are identically shaped and display the same tab like side projections to support the writing shelves, and the leading edges of both seats, which are deeply scratch-beaded and cut with relatively square profiles that give them a heavy appearance compared to Windsor chairs with chamfered seats. Both chairs have large, broadly splayed, bamboo-turned legs, and both exhibit sloping right arms with down-turned voluted terminals. Most structural elements are also similar. Both chairs have legs that are round-tenoned through the seats and secured with large wedges. The writing arms are joined to their respective stiles with rectangular through-tenons, and the dovetailed drawers are suspended between rabbeted runners nailed to the underside of the writing surface. The only significant differences between the two are their optional ornamentation. The labeled chair features bamboo-turned spindles and flared stiles that form pointed ears where they join the crest rail, while the CWF chair has plain spindles and a simplified crest, both less expensive alternatives.

The CWF chair descended in the Blanton family of Cumberland County, about thirty miles west of Richmond in the James River valley. One of the chair's earliest owners was probably the wealthy planter and land owner James Blanton (1796-1852), whose initials, "I B," are branded on the bottom of the seat. As residents of the upper James River valley, the Blantons were not unusual in owning Richmond-made furniture. Located at the falls of the James, Richmond was a natural market center for the region. Cash crops from upriver counties had been transshipped from Richmond since the middle of the eighteenth century. After the state government moved there in 1780, the city became an even more important source of furniture and other manufactured goods for residents of surrounding rural counties.

The context in which the Blantons used this chair is unknown, although period accounts suggest that the form appeared in both domestic and commercial settings. Writing from Richmond in 1806, lawyer and politician William Wirt referred to a common use when he explained to his brother-in-law, "Your letter has been lying . . . in the drawer of my writing chair awaiting for an interval of leisure to answer it." In addition to compartments for papers, the drawers of many writing chairs were also provided with small interior divisions designed to store ink bottles, wax wafers, quill cutters, and other writing equipment. Most of these drawers were awkwardly positioned under the seat and behind the writer's legs or beneath the writing shelf where they opened directly in front of the sitter, thereby confining him or her to the chair. The maker of the CWF chair chose an innovative approach to make the drawer far more useful and convenient. Although still placed under the writing shelf, the drawer slides to the sitter's right so that ink and other supplies are immediately adjacent to his or her right hand. The ink bottle into which a quill must be dipped frequently can be left in the front compartment so it no longer is in danger of sliding off the slanted writing shelf into the sitter's lap. The lock is placed on the back of the drawer where the writer can reach it without having to stand up.
Provenance:The chair descended through the Blanton family of Cumberland Co., Va., and was used at West Hill, the estate they acquired in 1854. At the 1994 sale of the contents of West Hill, the chair was purchased by a private party who sold it to Edward T. Lacy, who in turn sold it to CWF the same year.
Mark(s):"I B" is branded on the underside of the seat in large letters.