Peeling back the years

Intrigued by the question that I had raised earlier as to which upholstery on the chairs was the original, last night I found some time to remove the upholstery from the seat frames. I wasn’t too surprised to find more red vinyl under all but two of them.

But remember, I thought – and still think – that the red vinyl was from the 1940s. Whoever had redone the chairs in that fabric had done a thorough job in removing all previous upholstery and renewing the padding as well, as that was the last layer on the frames – except for the two frames in the saddest condition. These were covered with several layers of their own, but the original brown leather was still present underneath it all.

Why had these two seats been neglected in the chairs’ big red makeover? Perhaps they were deemed unsafe and ignored.

If you can’t see, in addition to the cracks and the makeshift cross nailed to the bottom, the corners are tacked together with picture-frame braces – those squiggly lines of metal. Weird.

The covers on these two chairs each concealed a few generations of upholstery – the one in the most modern fabric covered a rose-print fabric that looked very 70’s or 80’s to me. The other chair was covered in black vinyl.

Underneath those layers, they were both covered in a burgundy flower print that I can’t place. Its provenance must be earlier than the red vinyl, since the red vinyl seems to have replaced it on the other chairs – so maybe 1930? It was very old and brittle, and had been in contact with the original leather underneath for so long that it was stuck as if with spray adhesive. Its fabric weave had imprinted itself on the leather, making me think for a while there that the leather was actually vinyl. Not so – but I suppose 100 years of being squashed together did its best to fuse the two materials.

So now we’re up to 7 layers of materials: modern tree print, 80’s scallops, 70’s roses, black vinyl, red vinyl, 30’s flower print, original leather.

Click to read more…

After peeeeeeeeling off the red fabric at last we come to the original layer, one which tells us so much about when these chairs were made and what they were originally like.

The original upholstery was real leather – possibly yellow, or a golden brown. You can’t tell here, but when I wiped it clean(ish) there were just a few remnants of flecks of color. The leather was so brittle it tore like paper when I tried to loosen it from the nails.

There was a brand or a mark on the inside – I wonder if it’s enough information to enable me to do more research on these chairs.

Underneath the leather was a layer of  wool. Like, from a sheep. You don’t see cushions stuffed with real wool anymore.

And under that, surprise! A layer of straw!

Both of these seats, unlike the others, had solid bottoms. The one I opened (I left the other mostly alone) looked makeshift and hasty to me, like someone at a later date had simply inserted a piece of beveled plywood into the hole. (Perhaps because due to whatever accident had shattered it, the frame was no longer strong enough to accommodate a slung cushion like the others have.) But I can’t figure out a way that they could have done that without first removing the leather upper, and there was no damage to the leather that I could see.

Unless that was the reason the frames were in such poor shape? Maybe someone had tried to dismantle the frames from the backs, insert the plywood, and reassemble the frames? Judging from the poor, haphazard way they were put back together, that seems possible.

Or what if they were all originally hard-bottomed chairs, and the person who did the fancy 1940’s job pulled out the plywood bottoms when they replaced the padding and previous upholstery? I know that the seat frames are all original – there were scraps of the original leather still tacked on them all in places under the red vinyl – and after all, it really doesn’t make sense that someone would open up a chair and insert plywood but leave the original squashed straw batting in place.

I stopped pulling off the leather at this point, unwilling to rip it further. I will have to remake both these seat frames from scratch because they are so broken, so I might as well try to preserve as much integrity as is left of the originals. And then the question becomes… what do I do with the originals? Keep them in the basement forever? Or once separated from their chairs, do they become trash? Maybe I should throw out the really broken one but keep the kinda-ok one in case I go on Antiques Roadshow? :)

I’ve never made anything that had to fit as exactly as one of these seat frames. All that beveling edges, and mitered corners… and of course I will have to put them together with doweling because I don’t have a pocket-hole jig for screws… I hope I’m up to the task.

4 Responses to “Peeling back the years”

  1. debbie swickard Says:

    To me, they were just my grandma’s old chairs. You give them a most fascinating and intriguing life! I knew that once I died, my daughter and grandkids would not have wanted them and would never have seen the beauty or potential in them that I saw but did not have the time, space, or energy to bring out. I dare say that if you had not seen their beauty and worth beneath all that neglect, hey would have ended up in the trash dump upon my death. If I had searched for a million years to find the perfect home for them, I could never have found one better than placing them with you. Thank you. I shall ask around in the family if anyone knows any more information about the chairs, but I have my doubts. There are only two people left in the entire family who could possibly know anything, and since they are in their mid- to late-80s, I’m not sure how much they’ll remember. Still, to help with your research, I’ll write letters and ask.

  2. debbie swickard Says:

    Here’s what little history I can give you of the chairs.

    Grandma and Grandaddy were both from the area near Covington, VA. They were married in VA, but Grandaddy had a job with the railroad (he was a conductor) so they moved to Alliance, OH when he was transferred to OH early in their marriage. Aunt Ginnie, their first child, may have been born in VA, I’m not sure; but both my mother and her younger brother Ted were born at the big house in Alliance. Those were the chairs to the dining set my grandparents had in their dining room when my mom and her siblings were growing up. I do not know if my grandparents got the chairs before or after moving to Ohio from Virginia. I do not know if they might have been hand-me downs to my grandparents from their parents or not. I strongly suspect that they were, but I can NOT guarantee that.

    After Grandaddy died in 1955, Grandma had my dad and his crew build the little house she lived in from the late 50s till her death in 1984. The little house didn’t have room for the big diningroom set, so she gave the set to my mom. The house Dad built for our family also did not have a large enough dining area for the dining set, so the chairs were kept but the table went somewhere else – I have no idea where. I know that Grandma gave my Uncle Ted, Mom’s little brother, her clawfoot, oak dining table, so that may have been the original table that went with these chairs but I cannot say for sure. Ted’s wife didn’t like the chairs but loved the table; Mom loved the set but her dining room did not have room for the table, only the chairs. So that may have been when the set got split. Or it may have been that the table and chairs never were part of a set. I do not know.

    Only a few of the chairs were used in the dining area at the house where I grew up. The rest went into the attic (4) or to the basement (2). If you notice the water damage to the feet on a couple of the chairs, it was caused when the water heater burst and flooded part of the basement while we were in VA for a few days to attend a funeral.

    Eventually Mom and Dad bought a nice dinette set to put in the little dining area we had upstairs so the chairs that had been used in there were taken down to the basement. I think 4 of the chairs stayed in our basement all the while that I was growing up and we used them as extra seating whenever there was a family gathering at our house. The other four went to the attic after Mom bought the pool table. There wasn’t room for all the chairs AND the pool table in the basement.

    I don’t remember any time when all the seat covers were the same. I can remember several seats in the dark leather (?) and most in the red vinyl. (It might have been Mom who recovered them in that color; might have been Grandma; I don’t know. If it was in the 40s as you suspect, it would have been Grandma who did it and Mom probably helped. She would have been in her teens at that time.) Mom attempted at one time to give one or two of the chairs some new life and she put that scalloped fabric on one of the chairs to match a rocking chair she had re-upholstered. (BTW, I still have that rocking chair. It’s big and made of heavy oak. Maybe I’ll give that chair to you someday, too, but don’t hold your breath. My grandkids do like to sit in that chair and rock while playing their video games, so given that they will have special memories of that chair at Grandma’s house, they might actually want it someday.)

    I vaguely remember that floral fabric, but I don’t remember it as a seat cover. I remember it as curtains at my grandma’s house, so she may have put that fabric on the chairs at some point while her kids were growing up. She would have had the curtains and chair covers match. I have seen old pictures of those curtains at the big house, so she probably took the curtains with her and hung them in the little house. They were hung in the living room of the little house and that’s where I remember seeing them. Hmm, I digress. Back to the chairs.

    After Mom died in 1994, I bought the full set of the chairs at the estate auction and brought them down here, where (you guessed it), my little townhouse didn’t have room in the dining area for all the chairs. Again, most went to the attic. I did eventually find time to refinish the master chair and I started to refinish one of the side chairs. At the time, I had neither the tools nor the knowledge to do a very good job. And since everything had to be dragged out to the patio, worked on, and dragged back into the house each night because I have no basement, I quickly lost momentum on my interest in doing the entire set. I decided to keep the master chair downstairs as my desk chair and extra seating in the dining room when necessary, but the other chair went back to the attic with the rest of them.

    I always figured I’d refinish and restore the full set one day when I retire and move to my “someday” house. However, the older I get, the less inclined I am to want to have a house OR a diningroom big enough for that full set of chairs. I don’t want a big house when I retire. I want a small cottage like Grandma had. I don’t want to have to spend my golden years cleaning and maintaining a big house. I want a small place with a big yard and garden. And now that I have the pond, I want to spend my golden years fishing, not refinishing. So when I heard that you were looking for a set of old wooden chairs I asked you if you would like them. I’m glad I did. I’m happy, you are happy, and I honestly believe that the chairs are happy. Win-win situation for everybody!

  3. David in Kansas Says:

    Cool! What a neat chronology of the furniture. To be able to touch the timeline and imagine all the human history…

  4. debbie swickard Says:

    BTW, Grandma and Grandaddy were born in the mid to late 1890s and were probably married in the late 19teens/very early 1920s. Their firstborn came along in mid-1923, so they were definitely married sometime prior to 1922 and after 1917. Grandma was a school teacher in VA before she married, but I don’t believe she worked outside the home after she married — definitely not after the children were born. As noted earlier, Grandaddy worked for the railroad. He died a year or so after he retired.

    I’ll see if I can find the year of their marriage in the family bible. If the chairs were in fact made on/before 1915 as you suspect, my grandparents would not have purchased the set new. They would have either purchased the chairs second-hand (most likely after moving to Ohio), or the chairs would have been hand-me-downs to them from my great-grandparents. That is something I probably will never be able to verify for you as the only living relatives who could possibly know that answer in all likelyhood do not know or will not be able to recall it. This history is the best I can do for you for now.

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