Chairs for Children

Taking a Little Seat

by Rachel Hertzberg, Bryn Mawr student and Wyck’s Collections Intern, Summer 2018

In most upper-class American homes in the 18th and 19th centuries, children lived totally separate lives from their parents. They were cared for by servants and ate their meals in the nursery. The adage “Children should be seen and not heard” ruled the day. In Quaker households, however, children were integrated into family life; the Quaker belief in equality applied even to the youngest of the community. Children at Wyck took their meals alongside adults and all family members read, conversed, and relaxed together in the parlor. We see evidence of children’s participation in life at Wyck in the many children’s chairs throughout the house.

children's dderback chair
Children’s Ladderback Chair, c. 1730’s

This tiny chair is known as a ladderback, a simple style that can be traced to medieval Europe and remains popular to the present day. The carved details at the top of the chair, known as ring and ball finials, are one example of the fine craftsmanship that was prized even in a chair for a young child. This particular chair was custom-made for Richard Wistar who was a toddler at Wyck around the 1730s. Originally painted green, it was known affectionately as “the Wistar throne” and was used by many subsequent generations.

This diminutive chair has an interesting connection to another piece housed at Wyck. As an adult, Richard Wistar suffered from gout and so once again had a custom-made chair, this one enormous to accommodate his swollen legs.

 

children's high chair
High chair, left with adult chair, right, c. 1812

We get a glimpse into the daily lives of Reuben Haines III and Jane Bowne Haines by delving into the history of this adorable high chair. When the two were married in 1812, Reuben purchased a set of formal dining room chairs made of maple and rush, with latticed backs from local “fancy chair manufacturers” Hayden & Steward. A year later, the birth of their daughter Sarah warranted a return trip to get a matching high chair, for which the family paid $3.75. Reuben, or perhaps his mother Hannah, also purchased a small child’s chair for Sarah, costing $1.00. As with other children’s chairs in the house, the beautiful craftsmanship that was devoted to Sarah’s chairs differs only a little from that of the adults’ chairs, reflecting the equality of children and adults.

Photo credit:  Rachel Hertzberg