Virginia vernacular

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

The ladder-back, windsor, and fancy chairs made in western Virginia from the eighteenth to the twentieth century represent a unique contribution to the history of furniture making in the United States. This month more than forty important examples, mostly from private collections, will go on view in the exhibition Come In and Have a Seat: Vernacular Chairs of the Shenandoah Valley at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia.

By 1800 the Shenandoah Valley was home to a large community of craftsmen of German, English, Swiss, Irish, and Scottish descent. Extensively settled about 1730 by groups from both Pennsylvania and Europe, the region’s heavily traveled roads—in particular the Great Wagon Road—made the town of Winchester a major transportation center. Influenced by both familiar European craft traditions and fashionable designs from cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, the valley’s craftsmen produced a variety of vernacular chairs that, together, tell a story about the transfer of individuals, ideas, and products from the city to this frontier.

Ladder-back chairs were the earliest vernacular chair form found in the Shenandoah Valley; not surprising, considering their wide use in German-
ic countries and the large population of German and German-speaking sett-lers in the valley. By the early 1800s, the popular bow-back windsor side chair had made its way to the region from England by way of Philadelphia and then Alexandria, Virginia. Soon they were widely manufactured for use in dining rooms throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Fancy chairs, the third type examined in the exhibition and the latest to appear in the region, were also initially imported from England. In the United States the form originated in Baltimore in the early 1800s; fancy chairs were quickly adopted in the valley, where versions were made with both plank and woven cane seats for use in fashionable parlors.

Come In and Have a Seat was organized by the noted collector and scholar of Shenandoah Valley decorative arts Jeffrey S. Evans, who also wrote the accompanying catalogue.

Come In and Have a Seat: Vernacular Chairs of the Shenandoah Valley  •  Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia   •  December 18 to June 20, 2010  •

Image: Side chair probably Newmrket, Shenandoah County, Virginia, 1830-1845. Painted poplar, hickory, or oak; height 34, width 20, depth 16 inches. Private collection.