When Old and New Meet: The History of the Reading Room Chairs

RR 1910January 6, 2014, marked a notable acquisition here at the American Antiquarian Society. It also signaled the end of an era. When the Society’s current library building opened in 1910, it featured library tables and chairs manufactured by the Francis H. Bacon Furniture Company of Boston. For over a century, readers engaged with AAS’s peerless collections sitting in Colonial revival Windsor chairs, made of a variety of different hardwoods and designed to be light in RR todayweight in order to be easily moved. Yet these chairs were not built in a period when readers took notes using laptops or tablets, nor were current reading room policies governing the use of book cradles in place. The arms of the chairs were too high to fit underneath the reading room tables, and until roughly 15 years ago, our reading room chairs did not even have cushions. Sore backs and tired shoulders were frequent side-effects of research visits to Antiquarian Hall. Despite their period appeal, it was becoming clear that the Windsor chairs had outlived their usefulness (a fact that was borne out by the growing graveyard of fractured spindles and broken legs in the library basement).

So, on January 6, we got new chairs. Still, being the Antiquarian Society, we cannot resist one last look back at our previous furnishings, however uncomfortable. Francis H. Bacon had been trained as an architect at MIT, and started his career as a draftsman in New York City before sailing for Europe with a friend in 1878. The two 22-year-olds purchased a small boat in England, which they then sailed across the Channel, down the Rhine and Danube to the Black Sea, and then to the Aegean, where they planned to sketch archaeological sites in Greece and Turkey. He returned to New York in 1879, “stone broke but in good health and having had a famous experience.” The day after his return, he was hired as a draftsman in the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, where he worked until returning to Europe in 1881 (his position at McKim was filled by Cass Gilbert, who would go on to design the Woolworth Building in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington).

In 1884, Bacon returned to the U.S. and joined the firm of H.H. Richardson outside Boston, where he worked for several years as a designer before leaving to join the Boston furniture manufacturer A. H. Davenport and Company, which provided the furniture for most of Bacon stampRichardson’s Romanesque buildings (if your grandparents refer to a sofa as a “davenport,” it’s because of a line of furniture made by that company). He struck out on his own in 1908, making custom furniture for high-end clients. His many commissions include manufacturing the new chairs and desks for the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in 1913 after reapportionment resulted in expanding the membership of the House to 435, and designing the “shrine” that housed the Declaration of Independence in the Library of Congress from 1924 until 1952. Thus AAS’s purchase of tables and chairs for its reading room in early 1910 likely represented one of Francis Bacon’s earliest major orders. Although Francis’s architect brother, Henry, is more prominent today (he designed the Lincoln Memorial), Bacon’s career working with many of the leading architects of his day led him to be considered one of the most influential furniture designers in early twentieth-century America.

It’s not clear from records in the AAS archives what woods were used to make the original chairs and tables, nor do we know how much they cost. An early report by the AAS building committee included notes from visits to other libraries, which indicated that the metal tables stained mahogany in use in the reading room of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania were of “fine appearance,” but that the “complaint [was] frequently made that they are cold.”

chairs old and new

Instead of sending a committee out to visit other libraries, we brought several different models of chairs in to the reading room and asked AAS fellows and readers to test drive them in the late fall of 2013. After extensive evaluation—and yes, there were written reports—we purchased 50 Knoll ReGeneration work chairs. Our new chairs are ergonomic, fully adjustable, and cushioned, and thus far the reviews have been enthusiastic. The surviving old models were mostly distributed among staff offices at AAS, where they will continue to age gracefully. We hope that the next time you’re in the neighborhood you’ll stop by and give the new chairs a try yourself. They should make your visit a bit more comfortable.

4 thoughts on “When Old and New Meet: The History of the Reading Room Chairs

  1. Patrick Sheary

    HMMM, rather ugly chairs. Sadly the new, “more comfortable” chairs won’t last 100 years (10 if you’re lucky). Stick with the old Windsor style wood version, you won’t regret it.

    Reply
  2. Jack HT Chang, MD

    Just a thought: why not sell the chairs? I’m sure there are many researchers out there who has spent many, albeit somewhat uncomfortable hours, sitting in those chairs. The chairs may represent a significant period in their lives such as the completion of a dissertation or a significant research project. A small plaque with the AAS logo or name would add provenance. I have a chair for the completion of a fellowship that always brings back fond memories.

    Reply
  3. Paul Erickson

    Unfortunately, our readers very much regretted that we had stuck with the Windsor chairs for as long as we did. Comments about the uncomfortable chairs have typically been the only negative comments we have received from readers about their experience in the AAS reading room.

    As for the suggestion to sell the chairs, that’s in fact exactly what we did. AAS staff members who needed guest chairs for their offices had the first chance at them, after which we sold the remaining chairs. Given that we had so few that were still structurally sound, the number that was available for sale was very small.

    Reply
  4. Scott Bradbury, Professor of Classics

    We have very similar windsor chairs in our Classics Seminar Room at Smith College and I would like to buy a couple more, if I can find them. Could you tell me to whom you sold the chairs? Thanks for your help.

    Reply

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