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A Short History of the Morris Chairs I Make

Between around 1890 and 1920 the Morris chair was a fixture in American homes. I suppose that it was the ancestor of the chair that is now generically called the lazy boy. Morris chairs wore like iron because there was no fabric on the arms and the upholstery cloth was usually very heavy duty, even by contemporary standards. Even now, it is not uncommon to see 100 year-old well-used Morris chairs for sale on Ebay with their original finish and original upholstery.

Some useless trivia: Famous 20th Century singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) referred to the Morris chair in at least two popular songs. You Don't Need the Wine to Have a Wonderful Time was a sarcastic prohibition-era temperance number from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and it attested to the ubiquitous presence of the Morris chair in homes at the time. Cantor's rendition of You'd Be Surprised, also from the 1919 Follies, suggests that the Morris chair may be a good place for love-making. I have no direct experience on this point, but I have my doubts. However, I put this idea out because if the correctness of this contention could be demonstrated, it might spark a new wave of Morris chair sales.

factoryMy father had a traditional Morris chair and I used to sit in it on rainy days and watch the fire in his crackling woodstove. I guess it was natural that I would try to make a Morris chair when I became a woodworking professional. I worked on the design, on and off, for four years. To create my chair I measured every antique traditional Morris chair that I could find, over 50 of them in all. The measurements found on my chair are the averages calculated from the many old chairs I measured. The design of the actual parts of my chair involved taking those measurements and applying them to shapes from a few century-old chairs that I love. I borrowed some of the shapes from the chairs made by, or for, the Larkin Soap Company of Buffalo, NY.

Around the turn of the last century, Larkin "gave away" Morris chairs and other furniture as premiums with purchases of their soap. It was a huge business. For example, in 1892 Larkin ordered 80,000 Morris chairs from the factory. The Larkin company was responsible for the manufacture of literally millions of pieces of furniture and crockery from the late 1800s to 1941. There is much interesting material available about The Larkin Soap Company on the web. There are also two excellent books that are of enormous value in the identifcation of Larkin products: Larkin Oak and Larkin China. Both of these can be purchased at a bargain price by contacting the author, generous Larkin expert Walter Ayars, at www.waltayars@aol.com.

chautauquaadLike the Larkin Chautauqua Morris chair of 1898, my chair comes apart for shipping with bed iron-type fittings holding thefront and rear stretchers to the legs. The bottom of the leg of my Morris chair takes its shape from the 1898 Larkin Chautauqua, comparison below. Mine is a bit more muscular than the Chautauqua, as you can see. The top of my Morris chair takes its shape from the Larkin No 65, comparison above right. The reason why my chair is taller than the No 65 is that the No 65 was designed to have casters on the legs (now removed) and mine was not.

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legtop

 

no65adour65The Larkin no 65 also supplied the model for the spindles on the sides of my chair. Here is the original Larkin ad for the No. 65 beside a restored No. 65. The arms, hind legs and lumbar-curved back of my chair are modeled after other antiques whose history is unknown to me. When I look at my chairs, it pleases me to see their design ancestry and to think of the crafters who, like me, spent hours trying to make chairs that would be both functional and beautiful.

cherry