Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th Century New Jersey Chairmaking
April 23 – October 18, 2015
Rago Arts and Auction Center, Borden Perlman Salisbury & Kelly, Chubb, Pook & Pook Inc., Peapack Gladstone Bank, Jack Morton Exhibits, Pheasant Hill Foundation, and the New Jersey Historical commission.
This exhibition explores the craft of chairmaking in New Jersey from the 1790s to the end of the nineteenth century. This was an era when chairmakers worked actively in virtually every corner of the state, from large cities and towns to small crossroads communities. Hundreds of craftsmen are known today through census records, business directories, account books, and research conducted by furniture students and local historians. Thirty-five examples of documented New Jersey chairs show the range of seating furniture produced in all parts of the state. They are accompanied by chairmaking tools and equipment, portraits, photographs, advertisements, and plates from sales catalogs.
The first gallery introduces visitors to the process of making 19th century chairs. Most of the equipment and tools displayed have been drawn from the important collection assembled in the late 1920s by William H. MacDonald of Trenton. Special items include an authentic chairmaker’s bench, patterns used in Monmouth County, a rotating stand for weaving rush seats, color grinders used in Allentown for preparing paint, and decorative stencils from several shops in the Allentown and Englishtown areas. Photographs illustrate how many of these items were used.
Three additional galleries show examples of Windsor chairs, “Common” or slat-back chairs with rush seats, Fancy chairs, and Factory-produced chairs. Eight Windsor chairs made in New Jersey between 1790 and 1835 include examples from Trenton, Pemberton, Moorestown, Salem, and Monmouth County made by Ezekiah Hewes, William Bowen, Samuel Jaques, Samuel Roberts, William McElroy, Ebenezer P. Rose, and others. They range in form from fan-back and bow-back to rod-back styles, some with bamboo-shaped turnings popular in the early 19th century. Brands stamped frequently on the underside of the seats provide identifications for many chairs to specific craftsmen.
A wide range of Common and Fancy chairs were made throughout the nineteenth century in all parts of New Jersey. Fifteen examples in the exhibition highlight this diversity. Seven of them were produced by the renowned Ware family of South Jersey, who made slat-back, rush seated chairs in the Delaware Valley tradition in Cumberland and Salem counties. Nineteen Wares over four generations engaged in chairmaking from the late 18th century to the 1940s. The techniques passed down in the family remained so similar that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to tell the work of one craftsmen from another.
After the Civil War, chair production in New Jersey shifted from small shops to factories. Three of the most prominent were the Gardner Manufacturing Company of Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County; the Tunis R. Cooper chair factory in Bergenfield, Bergen County; and the Collignon Brothers in what is now River Vale, Bergen County. Twelve examples from all three factories display the special characteristics developed by each.
The title of the exhibit is taken from an 1828 newspaper advertisement of J. D. Humphreyville, a chairmaker from Morristown.