In 1726 Patrick Gordon came to Philadelphia to assume the lieutenant governorship of Pennsylvania. With him he brought five Windsor chairs, and he may well have been the one who introduced the style to America.
Local chairmakers copied elements of these "gentleman high-back't" (comb-back) chairs, but also added the baluster-style turnings and H-pattern stretchers found on Delaware River Valley rush-bottomed chairs. They eliminated the back splat and cabriole leg which were popular in England.
The inclined back and form-fitting seat made Windsors far more comfortable than the straight-backed chairs then in vogue. They were also light, strong and inexpensive, their seats never needed replacing (as with rush) and the chair could readily be refreshed with a new coat of paint.
Philadelphia craftsmen began to specialize in the Windsor chairmaking trade, and their chairs soon became known as Philadelphia chairs. They built them in near assembly-line fashion. But as a result their styles stagnated, and as the industry spread, chairmakers in New York and New England took advantage, custom-making their Windsors and developing smaller, lighter chairs. Around 1770 there was an explosion in the popularity of Windsor chairs, particularly as the colonists adopted the English fashion of having green chairs in their gardens. These chairs needed to be easily carried about, so the large, comb-back easy-chairs which had dominated the market gave way to the smaller styles we are most familiar with today.
But Windsors were also popular for everyday indoor seating. They were accepted by even the most prosperous members of society whose fashion sense at first dictated a preference for imported English chairs. But as relations with the mother country deteriorated, they proudly bought American. Now Windsors were found everywhere, from the most elegant mansions to the humblest cottages as well as in public buildings. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are all known to have owned Windsors. A painting by Robert Pine, circa 1785, shows the Continental Congress seated in sack-back Windsor chairs.
In the 19th century Windsor chairs were simplified for factory production, eventually losing their original style and grace. Even today, the furniture stores are full of these heavy, soulless Windsor descendants. Not until the late 20th century was the handmade, 18th century-style chair truly revived.Back to Tips & Techniques