Sack-back Windsor Chair

Description and History

Sack-back Windsor chair
  • Overall Dimensions: 22" x 27" x 37" tall
  • Seat Dimensions: 21" wide x 17" deep
  • Standard Seat Height: 17.5"
  • Between Arms: 19"
  • Available with paddle- or knuckle-arm.
  • Details: paddle arm, knuckle arm, leg

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The name "sack-back" refers to a sack-like covering that is said to have been pulled over the backs of these chairs with the purpose of warding off winter drafts. There is even one known high-back Windsor from Lancanster County, Pennsylvania, which has two small bows which are attached to the main back and extend forward like the wings of an upholstered wing-back chair. But why would this chair be named for the covering when it certainly could have been used on any style, the tall fan-backs and comb-backs in particular? Perhaps it became a common practice in the same period the sack-back was most popular.

The style was developed in the 1760s and may have been the chair which made Windsors utilitarian and available to everyone. While earlier comb-backs and low-backs were likely custom made, the sack-back marks the beginning of standardization and large-scale production, principally in Philadelphia where they were made by the thousands and exported to all the colonies. Considering the number of 18th century examples that are still with us, the sack-back might have been the most popular style of Windsor until the introduction of the simplified Windsors which were mass-produced starting in the 1790s. There are also many paintings from the period of statesmen, merchants and wealthy dandies sitting in sack-backs.

The sack-back is also the style most often found branded with the maker's name -- names like Trumble, Henzey, Wire, Cox, Bowen, Burden and Widdifield. Trumble and Henzey are known to have shipped a lot of chairs up and down the Atlantic coast in the 1770s and 1780s when the sack-back was most fashionable. It is reasonable to assume that sack-backs made up a large proportion of those cargoes.

Sack-backs almost always had an oval seat. Sometimes shield or "D" shaped seats were used, but these would be custom-made chairs. Basic production models would have seven long spindles and four short ones; fancier ones might have nine long and six short. The arm was typically made up of a single, steam-bent piece of wood; but sometimes a sawn arm was used, pieced together from three parts: two arms joined by a central arm-crest. Sawn arms usually had carved knuckle hands, as did some bent arms. The simple paddle arm was most common, however, and it can be assumed that the bent arm with paddle hand was used on production chairs.

Sack-backs almost always had legs with a simple taper in the foot. However, some chairs, mostly from Lancaster County, had the blunt arrow foot used extensively on the oldest comb-backs. Sometimes the fancier foot was used only on the front legs. The blunt arrow was often accompanied by a fancier medial stretcher, some reminiscent of Queen Anne chairs.

Sack-backs occasionally were given high backs, or a comb was added. Rarely, bracing spindles were used, but since the arm makes these totally unnecessary on a sack-back, they would only have served as a design flourish.

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