Rod-back and Birdcage Windsor Chairs

Description and History

Rod-back Windsor Chair
  • Overall Dimensions: 20" x 21" x 36" tall
  • Standard Seat Height: 17.5"
  • Seat Dimensions: 16.5" wide x 16.5" deep

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By the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century the Windsor chair was becoming simplified -- some might say cheapened -- compared to earlier chairs. But there were still good chairs being designed and made and the rod-back was one of them.

First introduced in Philadelphia around 1800, the various styles that fall under the title "rod-back" were a direct interpretation of the Federal furniture style of the 1790-1815 period. They were also called Federal Windsors, Sheraton Windsors and even "Windsor chairs with square tops." Rod-backs were made as both side-chairs and arm-chairs as well as rocking chairs.

A common feature of the rod-backs is bamboo-style turnings, introduced from China by way of England. Legs typically had three bamboo rings and a "box stretcher" system, where two side stretchers joined the legs at the bottom ring while front and back stretchers are joined at the middle ring. The "H" stretcher seen on older chairs was sometimes used, often with legs having only two rings.

  • Overall Dimensions: 21" x 22" x 35" tall
  • Standard Seat Height: 17.5"
  • Seat Dimensions: 16" wide x 16.5" deep

The ring pattern was echoed in the stiles (the two main uprights in the back) and often in the spindles and rod (or rods) which were turned rather than shaved.

Rod-backs with two rods, originally known as double-bowed, are today refered to as birdcage Windors, and sometimes chicken coop. The lower rod was mounted between the stiles -- that is, the ends of the rod were inserted into holes drilled through the stiles. The upper rod could also fit between the stiles or it could be mounted above them -- the ends of the stiles joined to holes in the rod. On the best of the latter type, the joint was carved to resemble a mitered joint. The spindles of a birdcage do not all run to the top of the back. Typically, four spindles terminate at the lower rod, while three continue to the top. Often the center spindle stops at the lower rod and a decoratively painted medalion was mounted between the rods.

Birdcage Windsor Chair

Also classified among the rod-backs are types with broad crests, perhaps the best known being the "step-down" Windsor, in which the crest is widest in the center then narrows in two steps toward the ends.

The seats of rod-backs were simpler than earlier chairs. They were not as deeply saddled, and the shield-shape is typically degraded or entirely absent. The front edges were not as sharply champhered (or not champhered at all) which tends to make them look thicker. Decorative beading, which was often applied to the edges, minimizes this effect.

Though rod-backs have often been judged inferior to earlier Windsors, they can also be seen as the realization of a unified design. The baluster turnings of the older chairs were a holdover from the William and Mary period (early 18th century), while the bamboo of the rod-back was derived from the Federal syles of the day. Since all the turned parts of a rod-back could be made with the same basic bamboo pattern, the result was a unity of design unmatched by the earlier chairs.

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