The Rocking Chair
The rocking chair is the most definitive of American furniture forms, holding a unique place in our history, homes, and hearts. Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin did NOT invent the rocking chair. That claim was erroneously made in a 1928 book, The Rocking Chair: An American Institution by Dyer and Fraser. Franklin did adapt his rocking chair by adding a foot-powered palmetto leaf fan to circulate air.
Why Did Rocking Chairs Appeal to Americans?
At first, armless rocking chairs were used by women for nursing babies, sewing, or knitting. Adding arms and moving the chair from the bedroom to the parlor expanded their utility for the aged or infirm.
Rocking chairs were next moved to the front porch where men were inclined to refresh and relax. Nineteenth-century American social culture included sitting on the front porch, which faced the street (a distinctive feature of American house design) to enjoy the view and greet neighbors. Rocking chairs were comfortable, reasonably inexpensive and readily available. Utilized by Presidents, celebrities, generals, ministers, and middle-class working men and women: a most democratic chair.
Foreigners did find Americans’ use of rocking chairs amusing since European cultural norms considered rocking back and forth undignified. By the 1820’s most USA homes had at least one rocker.
- 1725: Two ice skates were tied to the bottom of an English Yorkshire Windsor chair
- 1730: American version of the Windsor chair, adding “rockers.”
- 1740: Six-legged Swedish rocker called the “gungstol”
- 1742: Invoice by Philadelphia cabinetmaker, Solomon Fussell, for “one Nurse Chair with rockers.”
- 1774: Philadelphia cabinetmaker, William Savery, billed a client for “bottoming a rocking chair.”
- 1787: “rocking chair” entered in the Oxford English Dictionary
- 1820: Shaker Rocking Chair, New York
- 1825: Boston Rocking Chair (thought to have originated in Connecticut rather than Massachusetts)
- 1851: British made metal rocking chair displayed at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London
- 1860: Wicker rocking chair, Boston
- 1860: Thonet’s first bentwood rocking chair, upholstered
- 1875: Brumby Jumbo Rocker, Georgia
- 1876: Platform Rockers, New York
- 1880: Thonet’s bentwood rocking chair with caned seat and back
- 1904: Adirondack Rocker, New York
- 1905: Mission rocking chair, New York
- 1944: Denmark’s furniture designer, Hans Wegner, wood rocking chair with paper cord seat
- 1950: Charles and Ray Eames added rockers to their 1948 shell chair
- 1958: Sam Maloof’s first rocking chair
- 1962: George Nakashima rocking chair
Primary Rocking Chair Styles
Design of the Windsor rocking chair originated in England and was brought to America as early as 1726. Colonial cabinetmakers took the simple design, adding their own refinements including paint. Artisans used a combination of soft and hard woods, such as pine and oak, requiring little machinery to make. “Rockers” were added to the conventional Windsor chair to benefit nursing mothers in 1730.
“One of the most popular rocking chairs was the Boston rocker, a comb-back Windsor chair with a tall back surmounted by a broad top rail that provided comfortable support for the head and a convenient location for decoration, usually stenciled floral motifs. The spindles of the back were sometimes gently curved in an S shape, and the arms were generally heavy and ended in scrolls. Some Boston rockers had elaborate seats that curved down at the front and up at the rear.” Witold Rybczynski, Architect and Author.
Lambert Hitchock, 1826, manufactured ‘fancy’ Boston rocking chairs.
In 1771, Mother Ann Lee founded the Shaker movement in America. The Shaker chair symbolized the religious precepts of the society: fine craftsmanship, simple design and utility. Theologian Thomas Merton wrote: “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.” While the design of the armrests and seats varied, most chairs had a four-slat ladder-back with seats of listing tape (a kind of cotton webbing) woven in a checkerboard pattern. Local woods were used: maple, birch, chestnut, butternut and honey pine.
MISSION AND ARTS & CRAFTS
These terms have been often used interchangeably although “Mission” was used mainly on the East coast. “Craftsman” and “Prairie” are also styles interwoven in this category. Production origins are different in that Arts and Crafts were handmade while Mission was mass-produced. The overall style is rectilinear in form with little or no ornamentation. Rocking chairs featured large armrests, slat-backs, leather-covered seats using dark stained oak which highlighted the wood’s grain pattern. Notable figures in this style were Gustav Stickley on the East coast, and Charles and Henry Greene on the West Coast.
Sometimes called Adirondack ‘tree’ furniture, the name is not to be confused with the Adirondack chair which originated in Westport, N.Y. Nor did all such rustic chairs originate in the Adirondack mountains. Early craftsmen used all parts of the tree combining sticks, tree branches, and woven bark seats making each chair unique.
Once wealthy New Yorkers began building in the mountains, Victorian taste influenced the designs more toward “polite (fancy) rusticity” and caused an infusion of chairs from outside the region which resulted in more manufactured chairs. The “style” still helped enhance the city-dwellers country living experience.
Noteworthy Rocking Chairs
The following rocking chairs have had a continuing influence on furniture makers as well as consumers.
Hans Wegner, 1944, Denmark
A timeless rocking chair of simple, beautiful design. Wegner was influenced by Shaker and Windsor furniture, incorporating a high back, woven-cord seat and tapered, slender spindles. Knowing that the rockers needed to be splayed rather than parallel to keep the chair from creeping across the floor when rocked, Wegner created a perfectly scaled chair.
Michael Thonet, 1860, Germany
Thonet’s company created the first bentwood upholstered rocking chair in 1860, and this caned rocking chair in 1880.The design is distinguished by its graceful shape and its light weight. You can read about Thonet’s most famous cafe chair, No.14, in our DesignLAB.
Charles and Ray Eames, 1950, Herman Miller Furniture Company.
The original 1948 Eames single-shell form was made of fiberglass but now changed to polypropylene. The rockers were added in 1950. Since 1955, employees of Herman Miller have been given this chair to celebrate the birth or adoption of a child.
Sam Maloof, Furniture Designer and Woodworker, 1916-2009.
Maloof’s most iconic furniture form is the rocking chair, first made in 1958. After much work, Maloof developed a sturdy, comfortable and sculptural chair. Presidents Carter and Reagan were proud recipients of the Maloof rocker.
Presidential Rocking Chairs
Many Presidents have had a photo-op sitting in a rocking chair. However, three are noteworthy:
This Belter/Victorian-style silk-upholstered, walnut-carved rocking chair was placed in the Ford Theatre box especially for President Lincoln’s attendance on April 14, 1865. The chair is now in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “What true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?”
John F. Kennedy
The P & P Chair Company (North Carolina) rocker was first recommended by Kennedy’s physician in 1955 to help alleviate his back pain. President Kennedy had several chairs to use wherever he was, including aboard Air Force One. This Oval Office chair was refinished and upholstered by Mrs. Kennedy’s interior designer, Sister Parish.
Contemporary Rocking Chairs
There are numerous examples of contemporary rocking chairs: most functional, some whimsical, but all interesting. Here are some of my favorites:
Rocking chairs hold an even stronger place in American homes, offices, porches and gardens as time goes by. The medical community has various opinions about the health benefits of the rocking chair. Interior designers regularly use the versatility, function and charm of the rocking chair. Furniture makers and manufacturers today offer an even wider range of rocking chairs. Enjoy your rocking chair.
About the Author
Charles SuttonSutton Fine Furniture
Charles is a recognized authority on fine furniture, and is the past chairman of Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library, High Point, N.C. Sutton has written, taught and lectured throughout the U.S. on furniture history, design, period styles, construction and care. Charles was a member of the Adjunct Faculty at Appalachian State University teaching classes on the history of furniture design.Charles and Martha Sutton founded Sutton Fine Furniture which was responsible for fine reproductions licensed by The British National Trust, The Smithsonian Institute, The Henry Ford Museum and The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Sutton twice won the coveted, industry-wide Daphne Award for the best reproduction furniture made in America. In 2012, Charles and Martha established SIDE, The Sutton Initiative for Design Education at Salem College, Winston-Salem NC, featuring a chair library of 50 iconic chairs that are used to teach design and construction to students throughout North Carolina colleges and universities.Sutton has served as chairman of the board for North Carolina Museum of Art and is a member of the American Society of Furniture Designers, The Furniture Society and the American Furniture Hall of Fame Foundation.