Back in 2007, a poplar tree was removed from the yard of the Switzerland County Historical Museum. Vevay’s Jerry Wallin, one of the most accomplished artisans in the entire country, thought that the wood might come in handy at some point, so he brought the log to his shop on Market Street, hoisted it into the rafters, and nearly forgot about it.
“I was going through some things and I came across the wood, and I thought something should be made from it,” Wallin said. “So I called Martha (Bladen, director of the museum) and we talked about a few things; and I decided to make a chair, which they are raffling off to benefit the historical society.”
The poplar became the seat and the central structure for an incredible Windsor Chair that Wallin handcrafted over a period of about two weeks. The chair now sits in the museum — and will be on display tomorrow (Friday) night at the Community Art Center in downtown Vevay as a part of ‘First Friday’.
Tickets for the chair are $10 each, and can be purchased at the museum, and they will also be available tomorrow night at the Art Center.
Also, a lantern handcrafted by the last Sandra Wallin will also be given away as a part of the raffle. The winners will be drawn at a special meeting of the Switzerland County Historical Society set for Monday, September 23rd, at the Thiebaud Farmstead Museum on the west end of Vevay. Speaking that night will be Tom Beall of Kentucky, the current owner of the property that is known here as the “First Vineyard” that eventually brought the Dufour family to Switzerland County.
The history of the Windsor-style chair is as obscure and varied as the number of styles of the chairs today.
“It’s thought that one of the Windsors — it could be from the Windsor town in Great Britain, or it could be from the Windsor family,” Wallin said. “It’s thought that George I or George II discovered these in a small village in Windsor, and liked it; and the fad took off because it was royalty. They started copying these. They were called ‘stick chairs’, because they were stick built.”
Wallin said that different people have different theories on the origin of the name, but when they were introduced in Great Britain, since the early colonists here in the United States got most of their furniture and anything of any value from Britain, the trend set in Europe quickly spread to what would become America.
“In England, we’re probably talking around 1710 to 1720,” Wallin said. “And then, but the 1740s they were being sent to America, because people were buying these in sets. George Washington did that. He had them at Mount Vernon on the portico on the front of the building. He had Windsors lined up.”
Wallin said that people then began repairing the ones that were brought here first, and then they started making the chairs here.
“That’s when they started changing,” he said. “The British Windsors usually had a splat in the back of it, in the seat. You’ll see that still today in the Windsors that are being made in England, they usually have that splat. The Americans dropped that idea, and they started putting spindles around the whole back of it. That was probably in the 1730s and 1740s when they started making changes; and then different areas started making their own style, so you would have things that would distinguish one from another. All of the first ones were made in Philadelphia. The first ones produced here were called ‘Philadelphia Chairs’, because that’s where they came in and then spread out.”
Wallin said that places such as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania developed and produced its own style of Windsor chair; with other styles being produced in Connecticut and other areas along the East Coast of Colonial America.
Because of that, today not only can the era of the production be noted, but also geographically where in the country the chair was built.
“They were very specific,” Wallin said. “You can date the chairs, probably within 10 years, and put them in a place of origin.”
To provide an example, Wallin pulls out what he calls a “Sack Back” Windsor chair. He also notes that all of the different varieties and examples of the Windsors in his home are not original — but have been hand crafted by him in exact detail.
“This is a Sack Back,” he says. “This chair was introduced about 1760. There is no record of a Sack Back prior to that. The Windsors had a cylinder and ball foot, and these had to be made specifically to someone’s size. It’s very difficult to make a chair like this and then have someone say, ‘It’s too tall. I need to have it shorter’, because you can’t cut the feet off.”
To solve that problem, Windsor chair makers began what is called ‘vase and taper’ style legs on the back legs of the chair. This allowed a person to cut off the legs at any point, customizing the chair to the specific height of the owner.
Wallin carries out another Windsor, noting that this particular one is a Rhode Island chair — and again the style can pinpoint not only a time frame, but a particular place.
“You can tell the different leg on that,” Wallin says, pointing to the front legs. “Now that’s the same taper, but it has a little more of a bulge to it, and that designates a different area. This is a Connecticut crest rail, but it has a Rhode Island leg. There was a section on the border of Rhode Island and Connecticut —it’s like 70 miles long, straight up and down — and that area was where people kind of drifted back and forth across the border. They would kind of pick up whatever idiosyncrasies they had in Connecticut or Rhode Island, so there was kind of a mix there.”
Wallin said that most of the chairs at that period of history were being made by a family or a small group of men working in a shop; and the shop might produce hundreds of the chairs in a year.
“It takes probably almost two weeks to make an arm chair; and maybe just under a week to make a side chair,” Wallin said. “Today people use modern tools, so it’s quicker.”
Wallin, however, is a traditionalist when it comes to crafting his chairs —including the one being raffled off by the historical society.
“I stick to the old method,” he says. “The only thing I use is an electric lathe. I make all of my chairs off of original pieces. They’re copied off of an original.”
Wallin said that everything that has to bend in the construction of the chair is steam bent, and the entire chair is constructed from the central point of the chair seat and then it goes upwards and downwards from the seat.
“The seats are usually poplar or pine,” Wallin said. “The farther north you go, you get into pine seats. In the Middle Atlantic, they were all poplar seats. The undercarriage is almost always hard maple. They might mix it up with some oak some times.”
Wallin said that there’s not a right angle in any of the chairs — calling them all “little geometry puzzles” because of how each leg specifically comes out and then moves forward.
“They are all pulling and pushing against each other,” Wallin says. “You may be sitting and pushing back, but you have the arm posts jutting forward, so everything is cantilevered — these are made without glue. They are pinned together. All of the legs are a tapered socket.”
Wallin — one of the most accomplished blacksmiths in the world — first began making Windsors out of iron about 40 years ago. He said that most of those were used outside. He built his first wooden Windsor chair around 2004 — and in those 15 years he estimates that he’s built over 50.
The chair that Wallin built for the historical society is of the Rhode Island style. He began working on the chair last fall.
For more information on the chair, or to get information on purchasing tickets, contact the Switzerland County Historical Society at (812) 427-3560.