A Revolutionary Chair

Comments (2)

This article is from Issue 99 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Revolving Windsor chair  with writing arm. 1775-76 Mahogany, poplar, and other  woods 43 1⁄2" × 30 × 33 1⁄2" American Philosophical Society.  Gift of John Kintzing Kane, 20 April 1838.

There is no denying that Thomas Jefferson was one of the most skilled statesman and politicians in American history. The country’s first secretary of state and third president, he was also a keen student of gardening, architecture, and mechanical devices. These disparate interests led his Federalist nemesis William Loughton Smith to assert in 1796 that “science and government are two different paths,” charging that Jefferson was therefore not qualified to hold public office. Smith particularly chided Jefferson for his innovative revolving chair, remarking: “Who has not heard from the secretary of the praises of his wonderful whirligig chair, which has the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?” It may be this politically disparaging quote that led to the belief that Jefferson himself invented the revolving chair. However, the truth is that revolving chairs—although rare—were around before Jefferson ordered his first one. 

Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia on May 14, 1776, the day before the Second Continental Congress reconvened. He rented rooms from famous cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph at his residence on Chestnut Street. But finding the noise and squalor of “Center City” unfavorable, Jefferson soon found quieter accommodations at the newly constructed home of Jacob Graff at 7th and Market Street. He rented the second floor, which consisted of a bedroom and the parlor where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. 

Shortly after settling in, Jefferson collaborated with a local Windsor chair maker to build a revolving chair that would increase his working efficiency, allowing him to access his library, writing desk, and table without getting up. The swivel mechanism was incorporated into a double-layered seat assembly. An iron post attached to the underside of the seat itself inserts into a sleeve projecting downward through the lower “sub-seat.” Four window-sash pulleys inset into the top surface of the sub-seat near its perimeter support the seat while allowing it to rotate. Although the original chair lacked it, a metal plate was at some point screwed to the underside of the seat to prevent wear from the pulleys. 

The mechanism. A post attached to the seat pivots inside a sleeve in the sub-seat. The seat rotates atop window sash pulleys in the sub-seat. A metal plate on the underside of the seat prevents wear from the pulleys.

The original design

The original design. This reproduction shows the swiveling chair before its modifications.

When Jefferson returned home to Monticello, he took his furnishings with him, and in the late 18th or early 19th century, the revolving chair was greatly modified, probably by John Hemmings, Jefferson’s enslaved joiner. The purpose was primarily to shorten the chair to match the height of a long, low, upholstered bench called a Windsor couch. When pulled up against the swivel chair, the two pieces together created a sort of chaise lounge that Jefferson could use to alleviate back pain caused by the rheumatism from which he suffered by that time.

Unfortunately, the original vase-and-ring style turned chair legs could not be sufficiently shortened without compromising their strength. So it seems likely that a more contemporary Windsor chair with bamboo-style legs was cannibalized to provide new chair legs that matched those on the bench. A “writing paddle” was also added, at which time the front arm posts were relocated rearward to improve access, and paddle supports were added to the right-hand side.

When Jefferson passed away on July 4, 1826, the chair was passed on to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph. She kept it until 1836, when she gave it to Judge J. K. Kane. A member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Kane fittingly donated the chair in 1838 to the society, of which Jefferson had been an active member for 35 years, including serving as its president. The highly modified original chair has resided there on display ever since.

In 1975 the National Park Service reconstructed the Graff house to coincide with the Bicentennial. A huge effort was made to duplicate the original furnishings as closely as possible. Curator Charles G. Dorman brought in Windsor chair expert Charles Santore to help design a faithful reproduction the of the chair as it would have appeared when first used by Jefferson. Philadelphia area master craftsman Robert Whitley built the chair (at right) which is on display at the Graff house today. 

For further information visit:
The American Philosophical Society: amphilsoc.org
The Graff House: nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/declarationhouse.htm


Write Comment
  • JB from Broderick
    I would be very protective with all artifacts that relate to our founders, especially Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln and more. [Just look at San Francisco's recent actions regarding school names, for example. Plus all the memorial artifact that have been defaced and destroyed in just the past year or so that has essentially gone unpunished.] Too many these days seem to be using Orwell's "1984" as a how to manual, instead of a dire warning.
    I never thought a story about a chair would be interesting however this was very good. Thank you.

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page