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Rocking Chair

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Rocking Chair

Date: 1875
Medium: Elm, hard maple, original cloth-tape back, reproduction cloth-tape seat
Overall: 36 3/8 × 20 3/4 × 27 1/2in. (92.4 × 52.7 × 69.9cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 86.68
Label Text
The design for this astonishingly simple rocking chair was patented in 1875. The form is stylistically indebted to Shaker design, and the manufacture of the chair has often been incorrectly attributed to Shaker craftsmen. In addition to adapting Shaker models, the Henry Seymour firm borrowed several of the Shakers' innovative marketing ideas. Like Shaker chairs, Seymour rockers were produced in graduated sizes, offered in a variety of stained colors, and presented in a selection of woven, cloth-tape seats.

The incorporation of bentwood elements on Seymour's rocker acknowledges his indebtedness to another firm, Thonet Brothers of Austria-Hungary, whose patent on bentwood furniture expired in 1860. Seymour was the first manufacturer in the United States to imitate Thonet's creations.

Text Entries

         This astonishingly simple rocking chair was patented February 23, 1875, by Grove M. Harwood and Robert Wood and was made by the Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory of Troy, New York.(1)  The construction of the chair is economical, consisting only of eighteen round-profile members. Five of the components were steamed and bent: an inverted U -shaped member forms the continuous back stiles and crest, two others form the continuous S-shaped arms and front legs, and two more form the sleighs, or runners.(2) The remaining thirteen nearly identical narrow dowels form the seat rails, cross bars, and the square stretcher system. To create a seamless silhouette, the parts were joined by countersunk and hidden screws or were doweled. The chair com bines stylistic traditions borrowed from the Shakers and innovative manufacturing techniques borrowed from Thonet Brothers of Vienna.

The Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory had its office at 171 River Street in Troy and its factory at Erie and Auburn Streets in West Troy. The firm was owned and operated by brothers Henry I. and George R. Seymour.(3) From 1854 through 1858 the Seymours were in partnership with Robert M. Taylor in the Taylor, Seymour Company.(4) Henry I. Seymour and Company is listed beginning in 1859, and George Seymour is listed as a partner in the firm until 1865.(5) In 1871, a yea r after Henry's death , George was listed as "agent" for the Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory and as "manager " of the newly renamed Seymour Chair Company in 1878. On August 6, 1885, George O. Catlin and George R. Collins became owners of the Seymour Chair Company and renamed it the Troy Chair Company.

Not a great deal is known about the designers of the MWPI chair. Robert Wood first appears in the West Troy directory in 1857 as a "chairmaker." Between 1866 and 1869 his name is absent from the directories, but beginning in 1869 he is listed as "foreman, chair factory," presumably at the Seymour firm.(6) Grove Harwood is recorded as an attorney  and  an  insurance  agent  in Troy from 1855 and is never identified as a chairmaker.(7)

Although the Seymour firm produced conventional furniture for a middle-class market, it seems to have had a penchant for copying the successful ideas of others.(8) This rocker is stylistically indebted to Shaker design and has often been incorrectly attributed to Shaker craftsmen.(9) In addition to adapting Shaker models, the Seymour firm borrowed several of the Shakers' innovative marketing ideas. The firm produced its chairs in graduated sizes, offered a variety of wood stains, and presented a selection of woven tape colors.(10) The tape seems to be the same type as that used on authentic Shaker chairs. It is not certain where the tape was purchased or if the seats and backs were woven in the Seymour factory. Shaker work-order books from the 1880s note that Shaker workshops repaired Seymour rockers.(11)

The incorporation of bent members on Seymour's Shaker-inspired rocker is indebted to another firm, Thonet Brothers, whose paten t on bentwood furniture expired in 1869. Almost immediately, European companies began making exact copies of the firm's most successful products, but Seymour was the first manufacturer in the United States to grasp the profitability of imitating Thonet's creations.(12) On  May  31,  1870, Seymour  secured  a  patent  for  two  bentwood  side chairs that overtly plagiarized Thonet's most famous designs. The MWPI rocker is not, however, a slavish copy of either of its precursors; rather, it is a successful fusion of two disparate sources.

Essay by Barry R. Harwood

1. Design patent 8163, Design for Chairs, U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C.; Barry R. Harwood, "Two Early Thonet Imitators in the United States: The Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory and the American Chair- Seat Company,"  Studies in the Decorative Arts 2, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 92-113.  All information about the Henry I. Seymour Chair Manufactory and its principals is taken from this article.

2. Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman, The Shaker Chair (Winchester, Ohio: Canal Press, 1984), Appendix A, p. 4. One of the characteristics that differentiates Seymour rockers from Shaker rockers is the use of continuous bent members for the runners in the former and carved runners in the latter.  

3. The Seymours lived in the family house at 162 4th Street, Troy, owned after 1852 by their widowed mother until her death in 1875. The family was a large and prosperous one and had involved to Troy from Hartford, Conn., in the late eighteenth century. From 1852 Henry Seymour is listed in the city directory as a chair manufacturer a long with George Seymour. 

4. The Taylor, Seymour Company was listed in the city directory at Erie and Auburn Streets in West Troy. Robert M. Taylor resided at 34 Rochester St., Troy. Beginning in 1865 George Seymour is no longer listed as a chair manufacturer but rather as a stone­ware manufacturer; presumably he left his active role in the furniture business to join the pottery, an older family enterprise. In 1877 George Seymour is identified as an "insurance agent'' with offices at 153 River Street, Troy. 

5. In addition to the two patents he secured with Harwood, Wood secured pa tent no. 42, 150 on Mar. 29, 1864, for an innovative slatted chair seat design.

6. Harwood's name is also absent from the directories between 1866 and 1869. Perhaps the pair went elsewhere to try their hand in the furniture business. After 1873 Harwood was listed in the Troy directory, but his profession was not specified. From 1886 through 1895 New York City directories list Harwood as an attorney in lower Manhattan. There is no evidence that Harwood continued his interest in chair design after his move to New York City.

7. John L. Scherer, New York Furniture at the New York State Museum (Alexandria: Highland House Publishers, 1984), pp. 108-10. The New York State Museum in Albany has three labeled examples of Seymour furniture-a child's conventional Shaker­ style rocking chair, a walnut side chair patented Sept. 28, 1862, and a hickory and ash side chair patented May 31, 1870, patterned after Thonet model number 4. A version of the latter is also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An unmarked chair of the same design as the MWPI example, with original red and white tape on the seat and back, is in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

8. Harwood, "Two Early Thonet Imitators," p. 98 and n. 21. The firm's interest in Shaker design did not begin with this rocker. Previously, on Sept. 9, 1870, Harwood and Wood patented a more conventional rocking chair without bent members that is more closely related to Shaker rockers. They also assigned the production of this chair to the Seymour Company. 

9. The tape back on the MWPI chair is original to the object; the tape seat is a reproduction.

10. Muller and Rieman, The Shaker Chair, Appendix A, p. 4.

11. Harwood, 'Two Early Thonet Imitators," p.  92. Although Thonet Brothers did not open a retail store in the United States until 1873, beginning in the 1860s their wares were available from agents in this country.