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Rocking Chair Styles

Windsor rocking chairs were first made in the 18th century around the town of Windsor, England. The chairs were originally used as outdoor lawn or garden chairs.  They featured rounded, hoop-like backs made of wood spindles.  The Windsor chair (and rocking chair) appeared in America as early as 1720.  Cushions were routinely added to make the wooden chairs more comfortable.  American craftsmen began making modifications including the comb back style (the crest on the top of the spindles resembled a comb), and the birdcage Windsor which had no armrests.  The Windsor style chair was re-adapted in the 1920’s as part of the colonial revival furniture style that became popular in home decorating.

Windsor Rocking Chair

The Boston Rocker  is a variation of the traditional Windsor Rocker and  was developed around 1840 in New England.  Yankee ingenuity meant that rocking chairs were becoming better constructed, had better engineering and were more comfortable.  One example is the Boston rocking chair, which had a seat formed in an S-shape with a front lip rolling down and a back lip rolling up. The seat was much more comfortable and supportive of the lower back than its predecessors.  The Boston Rocker also has a long spindled back with six to nine rounded, long spindles (but the back tended to be higher than the back of the Windsor Rocker).   At the top of the spindles, there is a large crest rail.  The rocker’s arms tend to follow the curves of the seat.  Boston Rockers were often painted black and featured stencils or other decorations on the top rail.  The rocker was the first mass-produced, machine made rocking chair.   Furniture chronicler Wallace Nutting wrote that it was  “the most popular chair ever made.”  

Boston Rocking Chair

This rocker has a back splat that is solid rather than made of turned spindles.  The rocker is simplistic in its design but embellished with artistic flourishes associated with the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania.  Both the back splat and the top crest were painted with typical Pennsylvania German designs of bright red and yellow tulips, daisies, or birds.   Maple or other hard words were preferred for construction.  But the  rocking chairs were often made with more than one wood including soft pine and tulip wood for the seats, ash or hickory for the bowed back splats and crests,  and   maple, oak or hickory for rungs and  legs.  The chairs were often painted in dark brown, black, or red to hide the different woods used in construction.   These rockers appeared by fireplaces, in kitchens, and in receiving rooms of farm houses.

Pennsylvania German Rocking Chair

The Shakers were  a religious group that came to America from Britain during the Revolutionary War. Their religious faith was expressed through a commitment to simplicity of lifestyle.  Their hand-made furniture was representative of this philosophy.  Shaker furniture is known for being symmetrical, functional, and simplistic in design.   Shaker rocking chairs feature plain but sturdy frames with  ladder like backs made of birch or maple and flat seats made of splint, rush, cane or woven tape.  The woven seats of black and white contrasting material are characteristic of Shaker chairs and rocking chairs.  Hitchcock chairs and rockers built in Connecticut starting in 1825 share many of the Shaker characteristics – except they are more ornate in style, have thrush seats, and are often painted or gilded.  

Shaker Rocking Chair

By the mid-19th century, rocking chairs were being designed to be more elaborately ornamented, and more comfortable. During this period, rocking chairs were decorated in the Empire style, and later in Victorian style.  Upholstered seats and backs became especially popular on these Grecian-style pieces of furniture.   The rockers had comfortable, contoured seats and backs, as well as open arms.  The addition of upholstery not only made the chairs more comfortable, but also contributed to their acceptance as formal parlor pieces of furniture.  These rocking chairs were made between 1840 and 1885 and were large in size.  They were made of mahogany and often the seating area was covered in velvet, tapestry, or haircloth upholstery.   They featured rococo wood carving  in the shape of rosettes or flowers – particularly on the top of the rocker.  They became a “fashionable requirement” of a Victorian parlor.  The larger versions were designed for male members of the household.  The nickname originated because the rocker was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Rocking Chair

The Eastlake furniture style was popular between the 1870s and 1890s. The chairs were made in factories throughout the Midwest, in cities such as Grand Rapids, Chicago and Cincinnati.  Charles Locke Eastlake was an English designer who was a leader in the rebellion against Victorian excesses.  He advocated a return to value and simple design in furniture. His influential book, “Hints on Household Taste” was published in England and United States around 1870.  The style, which  featured straight lines and simple decoration, appealed to the producers of machine-made factory furniture.   Eastlake furniture was made of oak or walnut and was decorated with machined scroll carving and rosettes and burl walnut veneer panels.  These chairs and rockers were often paired with marble top tables. The Eastlake Platform rocker was a rectangular upholstered chair that rested on a platform by connecting springs which allowed the chair to rock.  They were often called Queen Anne Patent Rockers and were often part of parlor sets.   The early Sears Roebuck catalogue featured this style of furniture.

Eastlake Style Rocking Chair

Wicker rockers, as they were popularly known, were famous for their craftsmanship and elaborate and creative designs.  The first wicker rockers were made in England, but by 1870, wicker rocking chairs were fashionable and new designs, production, and materials for webbing were being created for the American consumer.  The word “wicker” is used to describe any woven furniture (or basket) that is made with pliable materials.  The materials can be rattan, reed, willow, paper fiber, rush grass, cane, or other grasses, and more recently plastic or resin strands.  American ingenuity created a technique whereby sheets of fabric were woven and the sheets were then nailed to chair frames.  Still another technique was to use man-made paper fiber and wrap it around long thin wires which were used to create  wicker pieces.  The production of wicker rocking chairs reached its peak in America by 1900. The style became fashionable again in the mid-twentieth century and examples can be seen on many porches, patios, and sun rooms in Hummelstown.

Wicker Rocking Chair

Because Americans loved their rocking chairs, inventors were always looking for ways to improve the chair or to create new styles.  Folding rocking chairs were one example in the Victorian era.  Another example was platform rocking chairs, also known as the spring rocking chairs.  They were a technically advanced version of the rocking chair because they did not rely on a bowed wooden rocker for movement. Instead this chair used springs set below the seat and attached to an immobile base or platform of the chair. In effect, one rocked on the springs rather than bowed wood runners.  This also meant that the rocker could be set close to a wall.  These chairs were first produced in the 1870’s and remained popular in the twentieth century.  They were solid in construction, and could be finished with intricately carved wood or upholstered with velvet or embroidered textiles.  These chairs are the predecessors of modern day recliners and swivel rockers.

Platform Rocking Chair

The pressed back rocking chair was a common style during the Victorian era.   They were relatively cheap to make when mass produced. They were made from oak and were constructed with a wooden seat panel with oak spindles for the sides, back, and legs of the chair. The chair was then placed onto a pair of bowed wooden rockers to give the rocking movement. Pressed back rockers could be plain in design or could be highly detailed with carvings and wood turning. This style of Victorian rocking chair was not padded or upholstered, but cushions were often used for comfort. The pressed back chair got its name from the detail on the top rail of the chair, known as the crest rail, which was punched into the wood by using a steam press.

Pressed Back Rocking Chair

These rocking chairs had low seats and were intended for use in bedrooms as they were smaller than other kinds of chairs. Slipper rocking chairs were often made in oak, ebony, walnut and mahogany . They often featured decorative upholstery, especially floral motifs.   The version for men tended to be sturdy and covered in leather, with curving arms and buttoned detailing. The model for  women  was smaller in size, and the seat was lower.  The terms "sewing rocker" and "nursing rocker" are often used interchangeably as names for this rocking chair.  The arms were omitted purposely so as not to hinder the women as they sewed or rocked an infant.  The name “slipper” is attached because many of these rockers were in bedrooms where slippers were worn.  The rocking chair was often included as part of a bedroom set which homeowners could purchase.  The rockers with their low seats were used exclusively by women for household tasks in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The low sewing rocker was popular during the times gone by when women were more apt to stay home and do needlepoint projects.    

Slipper Rocking Chair

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was popular in America and England.  The movement was a revolt against what was then though to be excessively ornamented furniture and mechanized methods of construction.  Craftsmanship with simplicity in design was extolled.  The model for the furniture was the  dark  oak furniture with simple, rectangular lines characteristic of furnishings in Spanish Missions in California.  American furniture makers even named the style after the missions.  Famous makers of this furniture were the Stickley brothers and Charles and Henry Greene.   Oak was the preferred wood for this furniture, although cherry and ash were also used. The furniture has characteristic joining of pieces and features darker finishes created by smoking the wood.  Mission-style rockers were famous for their sturdiness, comfort, and simplicity.   The style lost its popularity in the mid-1920’s when the colonial revival style became the rage for decorating.  

Mission Rocking Chair

The Bentwood rocking chair was invented by German inventor Michael Thonet in the mid-1800s. Thonet developed and patented a process by which wood was steamed and bent into graceful chair arms and rocking legs that seem to flow into one another seamlessly. This chair is light and practical, yet elegant.  It has come to be considered a classic example of the “modern furniture style.”   After the Thonet patent expired in 1871, many manufacturers make it, and it continues to be made even today.  The graceful flow of the wooden rods traditionally follows an S-shaped design that offers one of the best back supports found in any rocker.  The design distributes a person’s center of gravity to allow for greater relaxation.  A woven cane seat and back are traditional.   The elegant artist quality combined with comfortable usability of a classic Bentwood Rocker continues to make it a popular rocker in many homes today.

Bentwood Rocking Chair

The Amish Rocker (and chair) are named for the American German sect that first designed it.  The style is not an old one – but instead reflects the ingenuity of  the Amish who are known as craftsmen of solid, well designed furniture.   The Amish would not have used this style of furniture in their homes – instead it was created expressively to be sold to non-Amish homeowners.  This rocking chair is characterized by comfortable, contoured seats and backs. The builder dries small slabs of solid hickory or oak wood from young saplings, steams them into curved shapes, and uses them to create a piece of furniture that supports one’s back and seat.  Although light in their appearance, they are well crafted and are sturdy. The rocking chair can be painted or left natural.  Because of their simplicity in appearance, they are popular for furnishing cabins and lodges.    

Amish Rocking Chair

The Amish Rocker (and chair) are named for the American German sect that first designed it.  The style is not an old one – but instead reflects the ingenuity of  the Amish who are known as craftsmen of solid, well designed furniture.   The Amish would not have used this style of furniture in their homes – instead it was created expressively to be sold to non-Amish homeowners.  This rocking chair is characterized by comfortable, contoured seats and backs. The builder dries small slabs of solid hickory or oak wood from young saplings, steams them into curved shapes, and uses them to create a piece of furniture that supports one’s back and seat.  Although light in their appearance, they are well crafted and are sturdy. The rocking chair can be painted or left natural.  Because of their simplicity in appearance, they are popular for furnishing cabins and lodges.    

Adirondanck Rocking Chair

During World War I, W. C. Page Sr. and his friend, Arthur E. Presnell talked about building furniture back home in North Carolina.  In August of 1926, they opened a factory   For twenty-two years they manufactured chairs together. and then Mr. Page purchased Mr. Presnell’s share.  The P. & P. Chair Company operated on values of  common sense, hard work,  and great materials.  Their popular rocker was known as a Carolina Rocker.  In 1953, Dr. Janet Travell from New York purchased a Carolina Rocker for her office.  One patient of Dr. Travell’s was the junior senator from Massachusetts, who suffered from chronic back pain.  He acknowledged he was comfortable in the rocker, and the doctor felt it was therapeutic for him.   She acquired a second rocker for his personal use.   Photographs of that individual, President John F. Kennedy Jr. sitting in the rocking chair in the Oval Office began to appear.  Kennedy owned at least fourteen of the P. & P. chairs and gave them as gifts to international dignitaries.   The rocker used in the Oval Office is on display at the JFK Library & Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Because of Kennedy’s use, the rocker became known as the Kennedy Rocker.  The chair is still popular with the public, and thus is manufactured today.   The rocking chair has features said to diminish spinal pain, aid circulation, and relieve tension.   It has a high cane back, cane seat and steam bent back posts that curve around the back.  The arm rests are set low for comfortable elbow support and there are wide armrests for perfect balance.  The design allows one’s arm to relax naturally at the sides of the body. The rocker seat and back offer firmness and yet flexible support through the use of tightly woven Malaysian rattan.    

The Kennedy Rocker