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Back Stool (one of pair)

Place Made:
possibly Fredericksburg Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
mahogany –walnut –yellow pine
HOA: 36 3/4; WOA: 24; DOA: 27
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Straight legs with blind fret carving on the front legs in the shape of circles and flutes; pierced H-stretchers, undercut on inside edges, repeats geometrical patterns on legs; chair retains original back webbing and linen; decorative nails outline seat bottom and back; back legs splay; scribed lines used for laying out the carving are still present; plates for the original casters, now missing, are on the underside of the legs.

FORM: Although common in Britain, these backstools are the only southern-made examples known to survive from the eighteenth century. Although they do not appear to have been produced in quantity, the Day Book of the Charleston Cabinetmaker, Thomas Elfe, shows that backstools were made in urban areas in the South. On 23 December 1772, Elfe charged John Matthews 30:0:0 for “2 back Stools.” Backstools were generally sold in pairs or larger sets.

STYLE: The form of these back stools, with their sharply raked back legs and wide stance, parallels urban British work of the period. A side chair with similar proportions is shown in a perspective engraving in the front of Thomas Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director. The design of the fret carving and piercings of the stretchers is also duplicated on British chairs and tables.

CONSTRUCTION: Although these chairs were probably made in an urban area like Fredericksburg, the construction falls short of urban British work. This is most evident in the through-tenoned center stretcher (mortised-through stretchers occur sporadically on chairs from Williamsburg and as far south as Wilmington, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina. Orignially, the chairs had upholstery peaks on the front legs, but they were appaarently sawn off during a later upholstery campaign. The thick walnut rails of these chairs eliminated the need for diagonal corner braces.

UPHOLSTERY: The chairs are covered with a reproduction check slipcover over a yellow wool damask finish treatment, which is based on physical evidence and can be removed for examination of the frame on special request. For a full discussion of their upholstery conservation and treatment, see Leroy Graves, Early Seating Upholstery: Reading the Evidence (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2015), pp. 121-125.

The two back stools were purchased in 1985 from Mr. and Mrs. Abram S. Hewitt of Lexington, Kentucky. The back stools had come from the Hewitts’ horse farms near Millwood, Clarke County, Virginia. From the 1930s to the mid 1980s, the Hewitts owned “Montana Hall Farm” and “Providence”, estates originally built by John Kerfoot (1769-1841), while their primary residence was at “Long Branch,” the historic plantation of Hugh Mortimer Nelson (1847-1915) and his wife, Sarah Page Nelson (1866-1951). The Pages and the Nelsons were two of the wealthiest and most politically prominent families in colonial Virginia.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund