Nancy Goyne Evans. Windsor-Chair Making in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England, 2006. xv + 475 pp.; 35 color and 241 bw illus., bibliography, index. $65.00.
Nancy Goyne Evans’s Windsor-Chair Making in America completes her much-heralded trilogy on one of the most enduring furniture forms in American home and work life. Along with American Windsor Chairs (1996) and American Windsor Furniture: Specialized Forms (1997), this book marks a marathon achievement for the author (and the reader), the three volumes comprising some 1,475 pages. It is fair to say that no other American furniture form has been so exhaustively explored and documented, and the fact that this is the work of a single author further accentuates the achievement.
The current volume is a departure from the format of the previous two, which were tightly focused on the chairs as objects. The first volume examined form, materials, and construction to highlight regional differences and traits of the work of documented makers, and the second looked at the varieties of highchairs and other children’s Windsors, settees, benches, stools, commode chairs, barber chairs, and other rare and unusual forms. Windsor-Chair Making in America, by contrast, takes a much wider view of the Windsor chair as a commodity and examines its multifaceted role in the economy and social life of early America. Moving beyond an analysis of how some of the objects discussed in the previous volumes were constructed, the book places them in a broader context, showing how they were used, how they were valued, and how they were marketed to consumers. But it is not just the same material rearranged into a different format; an enormous amount of new documentary evidence is presented along with the economic and social interpretation of that material.
The book, organized like a textbook or reference work, is divided into two distinct intellectual approaches to the topic: “The Craft of the Chairmaker” and “Merchandising and Consumerism.” Chapter and thematic subheadings further narrow the scope of the exploration of every possible facet of making, selling, and using Windsor chairs. As in many good textbooks, source material can appear multiple times. A shipping invoice may be examined in three separate chapters to illustrate the price of the chairs, the color or form of the chairs, and the type of market to which they were shipped. In all, Evans is meticulous in her analysis of her sources to give the reader an extraordinarily holistic view of the information gleaned from documentary and visual evidence.
In “The Craft of the Chairmaker,” Evans deconstructs all aspects of Windsor chair production, from the organization of the craftsman’s shop to a detailed economic analysis of the cost of production and profit margin for a typical set of chairs. She examines the relation of the craftsman to his apprentices, journeymen, and other employees or partners. This section of the book explores everything from single independent craftsmen and small shops to the large chair-making factories of the early nineteenth century. Most intriguing is her documentation from government labor statistics for Worcester County, Massachusetts, for 1832 and 1855 showing significant numbers of women employed in chair and cabinetmaking factories. She also documents chair making and piecework contracted out to prison labor.
The chapter “Marketing and Markets” uses shipping records, customs records, and craftsmen’s accounts to document in great detail the shipment of Windsor chairs from the major production areas to ports all along the Atlantic coast from Canada to the Caribbean and overland to emerging markets in the interior of America. Evans cites shipments to South America, Europe, and Africa, and describes methods for properly packing both complete chairs and disassembled or “knockdown” chairs. One reference from Joseph Walker’s 1784 invoice book includes his request that knockdown chairs being shipped from Philadelphia to Savannah be accompanied by a craftsman to reassemble the chairs at their destination, “for there are no Macanicks here” (p. 315).
The most global overview of the chair form comes in “The Role of the Windsor in American Life.” Evans uses contemporary accounts, documentary sources, and historic images to demonstrate the near ubiquity of the Windsor chair in almost every sphere of life in early America. Domestic use, both indoors and out of doors, is the most obvious destination for light, portable, but highly durable chairs. Evans also demonstrates common use of the plank seating form in churches, halls, theaters, social clubs, libraries, offices, and even aboard ship.
Windsor-Chair Making in America presents a number of novel ways of looking at the origin and dissemination of a furniture form that is so common and familiar that its significance is easily overlooked. The true glory of the book is in the extensive documentation using papers of 120 craftsmen in addition to public records, newspapers, and visual images. The extensive citation of these contemporary sources to anchor nearly every paragraph can sometimes seem almost gratuitous, but the brilliance of Evans’s use of these seemingly sparse materials to extract extraordinary detail and consistent corroboration across sources demonstrates both tireless scholarship and remarkable organization in collating the information into this thematic approach to the topic. The extensive bibliography and more than 1,100 endnotes will undoubtedly provide a roadmap for researchers for generations to come. We can only hope that they will be as thorough, patient, and persistent in their work as Evans has been in hers.