Armchairs. Gaming chairs. Bean bag chairs. Massage chairs. The innumerable types of chairs and seating options for the interior of a home that we encounter in our daily life tells us a great deal about the world today. In this modern age, chairs run the gambit from high tech to highly comfortable and everywhere in between. When we look back in history, the same is true. The most distinctive chairs from a point in time tell us a great deal about the age in which they were created, weaving a historical tale that grants us greater insight into the human experience.
Over our 106 years of personal history, M.S. Rau has encountered a lot of chairs. Each of them lends us a small glimpse into the daily lives of the men and women who once sat in them. This article will highlight some of the more intriguing antique chairs that we have offered over the years, from the regal to the everyday to the downright risqué. Read on to learn more about some of history's most interesting chairs.
The King of Italy's Throne Chair
We'll start our list today with the most regal upholstered chair of the bunch. This impressive Bergère armchair was made for the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, who ruled from 1849 until his death in 1878. Used on the King's personal train, this seat served as his majesty's throne - talk about travelling in style! Crafted of sumptuous Cuban mahogany and upholstered in leather fabric, the upholstered armchair also features the coat of arms of the House of Savoy, which was the Royal House of the Kingdom of Italy and one of the oldest royal families in the world.
It was in the 1860s when the King had his private railway cars remodeled in the French style, including this throne created by the French firm L'Orme and Buire. Stylistically, it is French Revivalist and reflects the period's bold, strong designs inspired by the Renaissance, making it particularly suitable for an Italian king.
The General Masséna Armchairs
These French Empire chairs are equally impressive in provenance. The giltwood armchairs are an exact match to the chairs commissioned by the Emperor Napoleon as a gift to General Jean-André Masséna, one of the greatest generals of the Napoleonic era. It is believed that the anique wooden chairs featured here were either part of the set, or made slightly later to match the set currently housed in the Masséna Museum in Nice, France.
Each bears a laurel wreath enclosing the letter “M” for Masséna on the front rail. The laurel wreath was a famous and popular symbol of the Empire style, hearkening back to ancient times when it was worn as a symbol of victory. It was, thus, an appropriate addition to these antique wooden chairs gifted from one great military mind to another.
House of Representatives Chairs
Though not the seats of the royal, these chairs were nevertheless in literal positions of power. The Renaissance Revival armchairs by Bembe and Kimmel were once housed in the United States Capitol. The pair comes from a set of 262 armchairs specially made in 1857 for the chamber of the House of Representatives, which had been newly renovated that same year. Also known as the “Lincoln Chairs,” they were designed specifically for the new chamber by Thomas U. Walter. The chairs' motif mimics the imagery of the chamber's renovation as a whole, with a Federal shield decorated with stars and stripes on the top rail crestings, with turned legs bound by lotus leaves and headed by stars ending in notched toes.
After they were made in 1857, a number of the chairs were sold through public auction just two years later when the Confederate States withdrew 66 members in 1859. Once considered "extras,” these chairs have found their way into important public and private collections through the country, including the Smithsonian Institute, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, and the Chicago Historical Society. A set of chairs were also purchased by the portrait photographer Mathew B. Brady, who photographed a number of historical figures in the chairs, including General Robert E. Lee, General William Tecumseh Sherman, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and, most famously, President Abraham Lincoln.
Regency Cockfighting Chair
Talk about being ready for anything... this rare Regency-period reading chair also doubled as the perfect chair to watch a cockfight. Cockfighting was among England's most popular sports in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The pastime ranged across the social classes, and cockpits were in general a hurly-burley place where all social classes mingled amid frenzied betting and fevered matches. Though every town boasted a cockpit, country gentlemen were also known to hold matches in their drawing rooms. This pastime was a common enough practice to prompt furniture makers to offer chairs such as this made especially for the sport.
Luckily, cockfighting has become a sport of a bygone era, but that doesn't make this chair any less useful. Also used as a reading chair, this intriguing leather-upholstered chair seat features a yoke-shaped top rail with an adjustable easel and a saddle seat. The unique shape allowed the fight spectator to sit in the chair backwards and observe the action - or the bibliophile to sit backwards and read in comfort. Additionally, the chair boasts candlesticks that make it perfect for reading in low-light conditions.
W. & T. Avery English Jockey Scale
By no means your traditional chair, this rare piece of seating was once found exclusively at the races. Known as a jockey scale, it would have once been used at the English tracks to determine a jockey’s weight before a big race. This was done to prevent any one jockey from being lighter than the rules regulated, since it would give him and his horse an unfair advantage over their competitors.
The scale works using brass weights that represent a certain number of stones, or the British unit of weight measurement, with each stone equaling 14 pounds. Much like the weight scales used in many doctor's offices, the jockey would sit in the seat and the brass weights would be placed in the pan until nearly balanced. To refine the measurement, the slide would be placed within the notches along the main scale arm until perfectly balanced, and the corresponding measurement would provide the jockey's weight. Ingeniously, the weights themselves do not actually weigh the number of stones they are marked with. In order for the scale to show a proper jockey weight, it must have the original brass weights that were made for it - further preventing any chance of cheating!
This extremely rare porter’s chair is an exceptional example of a Victorian chair whose original purpose has made it almost completely obsolete. The style emerged in medieval England and France, when porter chairs were placed by the front door of an estate for use by a porter, or gatekeeper servant, who was charged solely with screening guests and visitors. The chairs had high sides and backs to keep draughts at bay on cold nights - particularly helpful since there were often cold breezes near large manor doors. Beautifully upholstered in deep red leather, this porter's chair features hand-carved floral decorations with a high back that curves into a graceful dome.
Circular hooded models such as this are quite rare. It is believed that this shape helped to improve the surrounding acoustics, thereby allowing the porter to hear better from a wider angle. Other notable examples of porter's chairs include the 10 Downing Street Guard Chairs, which were crafted by Thomas Chippendale and were used by guards at the residence of the British Prime Minister in the 1800s.
Belter Child's Armchair
This Victorian chair was specifically made with the tiniest members of the family in mind! The child’s chair encapsulates the charm of John Henry Belter’s American Rococo Revival style - all in a itsy-bitsy, adorable package. One of Belter’s rarest and most exciting models, this chair features all the hallmarks of the celebrated artisan’s excellent craftsmanship and design, AND is perfectly proportioned for a child’s body. As an added bonus, an open book is intricately carved into the crest of the seat back, indicating it was likely designed for a fervent little reader.
Green Seat Barber Chair with Baby Seat
Belter wasn't the only American designer to remember the children. This American antique hydraulic barber chair includes an upholstered child's booster seat so you can take your little one along to the salon for a quick snip! Crafted of carved oak and copper plate, the chair was patented and manufactured by Theodore A. Kochs of Chicago. Featuring working hydraulics to raise and lower the seat to the desired height, the chair also has a swivel base and a reclining lever, making it fully adjustable.
This fascinating invalid's chair was originally used by the infirmed and provided the highest level of comfort and support. Created of handsome oak and upholstered in its original green fabric, the chair features an upholstered footrest that trundles under the chair when not in use and a reclining back with pillow to allow a patient to rest comfortably. Hinged arms swing outward to allow an individual to easily get in and out of the upholsered armchair, while brass wheels make it easy to move the chair from one location to another. These vintage armchairs have become highly sought items by collectors and are often used as reclining chairs, perfect for libraries and studies.
The Gentleman's Surprise Chair
This highly imaginative chair is not for the faint of heart. Created by the William Phillips firm of Carlisle, England, this patented, custom-crafted piece of antique furniture is full of surprises within its numerous hidden compartments. According to patent documentation, the chair was originally intended to provide comfortable seating for “Invalids and infirm people, Photographers Studio Studys, Sitting Rooms, Apartments, Offices” for the purposes of “writing, reading, smoking and sleeping.” Don't let the less-than-exciting description fool you - this chair is full of excitement and the slightly risqué.
Barware comprising six cut glass glasses and four cordials are hidden within the sides of the chair back, and four decanters are tucked in along the right side arm. Small drawers in the front left arm contain cigars, playing cards, chess pieces, dice and a container for tobacco. Below the seat, which pulls out about six inches for reclining, is a larger drawer for a chessboard. Then, pull up the back of the antique chair and reveal a photo collection of naked women! Other features are a book rest that extends from the right arm and a desk that pulls up on the left side. Obviously not used as Phillips originally foresaw, the owner of this particular chair was certainly a colorful character!
Siège d'Amour Love Chair
The final chair on our list of history's most intriguing is also the naughtiest. It was originally designed for Edward VII, the Prince of Wales and later king of England, during his youthful escapades in Paris. Made to measure by the prominent (yet discrete) cabinetmaker Louis Soubrier in 1890, the siège d'amour, or "seat of love," was delivered to the Parisian bordello Le Chabanais for the future king's personal use. The design allowed the infamous playboy prince to amuse himself in numerous ways, including with two ladies at the same time. While the original chair used by the prince is now owned by the great-grandson of the original 19th-century furniture maker, the present example is one of just two known based on the original design. Another example can be found on display in a museum in Prague.
Bordellos were legalized in France in 1802, but it wasn't until 1878 that one of high standing, Le Chabanais, was opened. One of the great bordellos of fin-de-siècle Paris, Le Chabanais was renowned for its extravagance. The bedrooms were lavishly decorated in their own exotic styles, including the Turkish Chamber, Pompeii Room, and Japanese Salon. Many foreign dignitaries visited this famed tourist landmark, the future King Edward VII among them. This siège d'amour is an extraordinary relic of this alluring history.
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