Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Delaware Valley Ladder Back Chair

Guest blog entry by Shayla Carey

Walking through an exhibit with Jim Lewars is fun, especially when he is in the mood to give a history lesson.  He is so much like my favorite high school teacher, Mr. Anderson—who could skip an entire lesson in physics when we asked him to tell us about black holes—that sometimes, when I just feel like relaxing and losing myself in a good, informative lecture, I’ll ask Jim to enlighten me about an aspect of the latest exhibit in the Visitor Center Gallery.

It had been a long day for me, back in early March, and I was feeling pretty excited about the prospect of trying out the seating in the Gallery provided by Martin’s Chair and not about having to go back to my office and face my list of e-mails.  Jim, curators Bruce Bomberger and Jen Royer, and I had just gotten done with giving a preview tour and were loitering.  Jim was taking a last look at the chairs in the case closest to the exit and it was there that I approached him.

“Jim, what makes the Delaware Valley ladderback chair special?” I asked.  The light went on in his eyes.  I had him.

Delaware Valley ladder back chair.
Daniel Boone 18th century.
“So, the Delaware Valley ladder back became very commonly used throughout Southeastern PA in the 18th century.  And it is a chair type which was distinctive to Southeastern PA.  There were ladder back chairs produced elsewhere—there were New England ladder back chairs, New York ladder back chairs—but the chairs produced in the Delaware Valley are distinctive.  It is believed that they relate more closely to a Germanic prototype, as opposed to an English ladder back.  The back—the splats—are not only arched on the top, but the bottom as well.  The armchairs have a distinctive cutout, which you can see here on this one loaned from the Daniel Boone Homestead,” he said as he pointed to a well-preserved, rush-bottom, rocking chair dating from the late 18th century.  I leaned over and, sure enough, when viewed from an artist’s perspective, I could see the curved negative space between the arms and the seat.  Beautiful.

He went on to say, “They were produced by non-German cabinetmakers as well, but the style is attributed to the Germans.  We have visual evidence that they were produced as early as the beginning of the 18th century.  There’s a painting of a man named Johannes Kelpius that shows the Delaware Valley ladder back.  And they were produced well into the 19th century, too.”

Jim started to walk away, but my interest was piqued.  After excitedly returning to my desk, I researched as much as I could find about the Delaware Valley ladder back style:

According to Harvey Green in his book, Wood:  Craft, Culture, History, two chair making traditions existed in Europe:  joiner’s chairs, of frame-and-panel furniture, and turner’s chairs, made with a lathe.  Ladder backs are a relatively easy to produce combination of the two, with the support structure—legs and stretchers—turned with a lathe and the backs made of pinned mortise-and-tendon joints.  The seats were of woven rushes, or other pliant materials, and tightly threaded through the weave, creating a sturdy platform upon which to sit.

Green also goes on to say, “The ladder back was also a more efficient way to produce a chair back.  Although it entailed chopping six to ten mortises (which could be roughed out with an auger), that process involved less careful and less demanding work than did the multitude of round holes that had to be drilled in precise angles to hold the spindles of the Windsor chair’s back and sides.”

The ladder back’s comfort and modest price were well-known to those around the Philadelphia area, including Benjamin Franklin, who bought twenty of them between 1739 and 1748, according to the late Benno Forman, who worked as curator of Winterthur Museum and wrote the essay “German Influences in Pennsylvania Furniture” for the book, Arts of the Pennsylvania Germans.  Philadelphia styles tended to be higher style, borrowing elements such as crookt legs and ornately turned stretchers from other styles.  At their heart, though, they were the rush-bottom, straight-back chairs of German origin.

According to Forman, the Delaware Valley ladder back chair “may have been introduced into Pennsylvania by a chair maker who was a member of the Shoemaker (originally Shumacher) family of Germantown.  If the Shoemakers were the first makers of these chairs in the New World, then they are also the agents through which the style made its way to Philadelphia early in the eighteenth century, for Jacob Shoemaker, formerly of Germantown, moved there in 1714/15 and continued to practice his trade.”  The ladder back was made even later than Jim thought, too, as Forman notes the Ware family of southern New Jersey, who made these chairs well into the 1930’s.

In my research, I also found a book on “chairs-as-art,” by Ray Hemachandra, called 500 Chairs:  Celebrating Traditional and Innovative Designs.  In it, there are ladder back chairs made of wood and iron and actual ladders that are really neat to look at, but their sole purpose is gone.  The iron climbs up the back like an immovable portcullis.  In the other, the ladder rests in a chair that reminds me of a letter Z made of wood.  I would never want to sit in them and rock out all day long like I would when I gaze at the examples in Landis Valley’s exhibit.  Maybe that’s the true innovation—when form and function combine to make you want to plant yourself on it and forget all about that for a while.