The American Campeche chair

May 2009 | On March 8, 1827, Joseph Coolidge (1798–1879), the husband of Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge (1796–1876), wrote to Nicholas P. Trist (1800–1874), another of Jefferson’s grandsons-in-law, regarding the distribution of the Monticello, Virginia, estate: “Ellen now desires me to say that if you can procure the Campeachy chair, with [Jefferson’s] initials, she wishes you to do so, at any price.”1 The current location of the chair is unknown, though a mahogany example with a scallop crest that descended in the Trist family to Thomas Jefferson Trist (1828–1890) is now at Monticello. The Jefferson family’s use of Campeches is verified in letters, including one that Virginia Randolph Trist (1801–1882) wrote to her sister Ellen shortly after her wedding to Coolidge: “He [Jefferson] misses you sadly every evening when he takes his seat in one of the campeachy chairs, & he looks so solitary & the empty chair on the opposite side of the door is such a melancholy sight to us all.”2

A graceful emblem of plantation society in the Americas, the Campeche chair is characterized by a lateral nonfolding curule base and a reclining back and seat made of embossed leather (see Fig. 1). Nineteenth-century examples in the United States are found principally in the South, especially Louisiana. Such chairs are also prevalent in Latin America, Spain, the Balearic Islands, and in locations that were situated along seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish trade routes, such as Indonesia. Since the publication of Celia Jackson Otto’s article “Nineteenth-century contour chairs” in the February 1965 issue of The Magazine Antiques, considerable evidence has been gathered that enriches our understanding of the use of Campeches in the Americas. 

An exotic curiosity to its North American owners, the Campeche stands today as a reminder of the trade culture in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region and of Hispanic social and cultural influence in the Lower Mississippi River valley. It is named for the Bay of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico, and the port city of Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula, better known for its trade in logwood (Haemytoxylon campechianum).3

In Louisiana, for generations the form has been called a boutaque, French patois for the Spanish word butaca meaning armchair, and the name has also been anglicized as Campeachy. Early nineteenth-century inward foreign cargo manifests in the collection of the National Archives and Records in Fort Worth, Texas, document the shipment of “Spanish chairs,” “boutaque” chairs, and “arm-chairs” from coastal towns of the Yucatán—Campeche, Veracruz, Sisal, and Tabasco—to the port of New Orleans from about 1800 to 1825. The imports sometimes included butaquitos, which are diminutive versions.

As Mexican Campeches were becoming popular in New Orleans, similar neoclassical permutations enjoyed a vogue in Europe. Notable examples include a palisander-veneered curule writing chair (Krankenstuhl) owned by the Prussian monarch Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840), possibly designed by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) in 1829 (Hohenzollern Museum, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin).4 A drawing of about 1790 signed “Menuier inv. et fecit” and entitled Projet de chaise à l’antique depicts an armless version upholstered in pale blue embroidered silk with paterae and gold fringe (Fig. 3). A realization of this design (c. 1795) in mahogany has been attributed to Georges Jacob (1739–1814).5 Anne-Marguérite-Henriette Rouillé de Marigny, Baroness Hyde de Neuville completed a small graphite sketch during her passage aboard L’Alerte from Barcelona to the United States that depicts two children sleeping, one in a Spanish chair identifiable by its arched crest, carved finials, and reclining back (Fig. 5).6 The similarity of the overall configuration of the chair in the sketch—particularly its crest and finials—to one now at Elgin Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi (Fig. 8), points to the Campeche’s Spanish origin and later popularity among Mississippi River valley planters.    

The Campeche and its European counterparts derive from the sella curulis, or magistrate’s chair, a cross-legged seat used in ancient Rome by the highest dignitaries, who were named curule aediles and magistratus curules.7 As its base the sella curulis, like much Roman architecture, employed the arch, the quintessential symbol of Roman authority. During the late Roman Empire, the addition of an extended back to this seat resulted in a new type of chair with a lateral curule base, examples of which are known from carved ivory depictions.

By the Renaissance, this form was referred to in Spain as silla francesa (or French seat), perhaps in reference to Gallic mendicant orders who brought it there.8 A second type with a front-facing curule base appeared across Europe during the Renaissance and was known in Spain as sillón da cadera (or hip-joint armchair); during the nineteenth-century Renaissance revival, they were called Dante or Savonarola chairs. Both the sillón da cadera and silla francesa were transferred to Nueva España by the Spanish.9

Aztec codices and other eyewitness accounts of the arrival of Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) in Mexico in 1519 show him seated in a sillón da cadera. As the furniture historian Abelardo Carrillo y Gariel explains, “These chairs were merchandise for importation to the America of the 1500s and were brought all the way from the peninsula to these regions by the vessels of the Carrera de las Indias.”10 While the sillón da cadera became obsolete, the lateral curule base chair endured, in part because its reclining back provided comfortable repose in the sultry climes of Latin America. With its arched crest and finials echoing Spanish colonial cathedral facades, the so-called butaca became strongly associated with Mexican, West Indian, and South American culture.

Thank you for signing up.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

» View All