John Kassay. The Book of American Windsor Furniture: Styles and Technologies. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. viii + 195 pp.; 200+ bw illus., numerous measured drawings, bibliography. $49.95.
Historically, American Windsor furniture is not only the most popular furniture style of eighteenth-century America, but it continues to be collected today by individuals, museums, and historic sites. Consequently, it is not surprising that the subject has been the focus of several major works published in the last eighteen years: Charles Santore’s two-volume landmark investigation into The Windsor Style in America (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1981 and 1986), followed by Nancy Goyne Evans’s long-awaited, epic studies of American Windsor Chairs (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996) and American Windsor Furniture: Specialized Forms (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1997). These impressive tomes corroborate our fascination with stick-and-socket-framed furniture with wooden plank seats. With a total of nearly fifteen hundred pages devoted to the topic relatively recently, the question arises, do we really need another 195 pages on this subject? The answer is a resounding yes, when they are written by John Kassay, teacher, furniture maker, and draughtsman. The Book of American Windsor Furniture: Styles and Technologies is similar in design, scope, and format to his most successful The Book of Shaker Furniture, published in 1980, when interest in Shaker design was in its infancy. Both of these attractive, well-designed volumes combine black-and-white photography with pencil-shaded measured drawings that are accurately detailed and easy to follow, with descriptive captions on each piece. John Kassay taught industrial arts in junior and senior high schools and served as professor emeritus in the department of design and industry at San Francisco State University for thirty years. With this training and experience, the author is uniquely qualified to evaluate design and analyze period construction methods for the connoisseur and cabinetmaker alike.
As the author reaffirms in the preface, “Windsors are expressions of utility. They . . . are universal . . . and ubiquitous.” In the introduction that follows he succinctly traces the origin and evolution of the form from the rustic hand-hewn stools of ancient Egypt through their appearance in seventeenth-century England and their introduction into eighteenth-century America, using paintings, engravings, and drawings as evidence. Although several of these images have appeared previously in Evans—and he acknowledges her contribution to the field—his seven-page synopsis provides the student, collector, and craftsman with a clear, concise, and precise overview of the subject.
The book is organized by Windsor types and follows the familiar and functional format presented by Santore: comb-back chairs, low-back chairs, fan-back chairs, sack-back chairs, bow-back chairs, continuous-bow armchairs, rod-back chairs, step-down and slat-back chairs, writing-arm chairs, rocking chairs, settees, children’s chairs, high chairs, cradles, stools, candlestands, and tables. For each object selected, Kassay provides a black-and-white photograph and information about origin, date, maker (if known), measurements, and materials. At this point, however, Kassay’s approach differs markedly from his predecessors since he focuses primarily on design and construction. For thirty-four different types of arm and side chairs, settees, cradles, stools, stands, and tables, from the simplest to the most complex, the author supplies detailed measured drawings with materials and dimensions noted to suit the novice as well as to challenge the more skilled craftsman. In the discussion that follows each piece, he skillfully weaves historical information on the form with a detailed visual analysis of the proportions, turnings, and carvings from the standpoint of a true connoisseur. For example, of the braced comb-back armchair (no. 15, p. 23), he writes, “the chair merits high marks for these features: a wavelike scrolled crest rail with perked up ears; slightly bulbous tapered spindles; beveled side-scrolled hand holds; a well-saddled shield-shaped seat with a pronounced pommel; tapered stretchers with abrupt, enlarged centers (the center one is ringed); long, tapered, and exceptionally large bulbous turnings on the baluster legs; and the less-accomplished arm supports. The sum of its parts makes this chair a Windsor masterpiece.” His analysis of this and other objects will assist the beginner as well as the expert in honing their visual skills to determine what is, in Albert Sack’s terminology, “good, better, and best” in American Windsor furniture. The objects selected for reproduction include those branded by chairmakers John Chapman (no. 111), Anthony Steel (no. 154), and John Letchworth (no. 182) of Philadelphia; Ebenezer Tracy (no. 135) and T. H. Lewis (no. 106) of Massachusetts; Elijah Tracy (no. 100), Steven Tracy (no. 21), Amos Allen (no. 62), and McCracken (no. 44) of Connecticut; as well as a number of striking unidentified pieces that broaden our understanding of the richness and variety of each form.
With frequent reference to technical terms like “pommel” and “saddle” throughout the text, the reader would have been better served if a glossary were available for immediate reference. Although the small print used in The Book of Shaker Furniture was not a problem for my thirty-something eyes in 1980, the same typeface appearing eighteen years later in The Book of American Windsor Furniture makes it more difficult to navigate with my now middle-aged vision. Whereas the Santore and Evans books, encyclopedic in scope, are aimed at the more scholarly audience, Kassay addresses both the beginning student as well as the more advanced connoisseur and cabinetmaker. I would recommend this publication to anyone interested in Windsor furniture as an introduction to the subject before tackling the more daunting Santore and Evans studies. Over the years, The Book of Shaker Furniture has been and continues to be a mainstay on the subject. I strongly suspect that its counterpart, The Book of American Windsor Furniture, will also stand the test of time.
Jean M. Burks