The ladder back chair was one of the most popular chairs of its time. It was easy to construct, simple in design, and affordable to make. Today, classic antique ladder back chairs chairs are desirable pieces for antique collectors.
What Is a Ladder Back Chair?
A ladder back chair, also known as a slat-back chair, is named for the horizontal slats across the back of the chair, resembling the rungs of a ladder. The slats, usually two to six in number, are connected to the straight back posts with a mortise and tenon joint. The posts of the chair are perpendicular to each other and were usually turned, or rounded, on a lathe. They had the following features:
- The classic version features a high back and a woven rush seat.
- Most ladder backs of the 18th century had arms, although armless chairs were common. Some are rockers, some are not; rockers were sometimes added later.
- Ladder backs from the 18th century were made of hardwood. The English ladder back was made of ash, beech, or oak; American ones were made of maple, oak, or other hardwood.
- The most popular finishes were stain or paint, usually in red or black.
Antique Ladder Back Chair History
The ladder back is believed to originate in the Middle Ages in Europe. Its popularity rose dramatically after the Protestant Reformation, as the chairs were plain in style, a trait valued by early Protestants. The chair came across the Atlantic with the early American colonists. Furniture makers in Philadelphia, Boston, and other colony centers made it and sold to all classes of colonists. Rural farmers also embraced the chair; it was quick and easy to make. It served as a dining chair, a "sitting" chair, and a pew chair. Quakers used it as the chair for their meeting houses.
Declining Popularity During the Victorian Era
During the second half of the 19th century, the advent of the Victorian style of furniture diminished the popularity of the simple ladder back. Once prominent in parlors and front porches, it was demoted to kitchens, second bedrooms, or even attics.
Modern Usage of the Ladder Back Chair
Ladder back chairs still hold a place in modern furniture design. Reproductions of the 18th and 19th century chairs are in most furniture stores. Original versions are still found in antique stores and auctions. Antique ladder back chairs made a gorgeous addition to modern rooms, adding a sense of history and farmhouse style.
Ladder Back Chair Styles and Variations
The traditional antique ladder back chair style is very simple, but there are a number of variations you may encounter in antique shops and online auctions. You'll see both dining chairs and parlor chairs. Dining chairs tend to have a lower seat than parlor chairs. You'll also see ladder back chairs in natural woods, as well as painted in a variety of colors. These are some of the variations you may see on the basic design:
- Square posts - Some ladder back chairs have posts that are not turned on a lathe, leaving them square instead of rounded.
- Mule-ear or rabbit-ear - In this style, the back posts taper downward and curve backwards like the long ears of a mule or rabbit.
- Rocking chairs - Antique rocking chairs come in many styles, and ladder back is one of them.
- Panel-back - Instead of have slats, this type of chair has a flat or curved panel.
Identifying Antique Ladder Back Chair Values
Just as with other antique chair values, determining the value of an antique ladder back chair means examining the chair and comparing it to recently sold examples. Individual ladder back chairs often sell for under $100, but there are some factors that can make them more valuable.
Factors Affecting the Value of Antique Ladder Back Chairs
To find the value of a ladder back chair, consider the following factors:
- Condition - Ladder backs were used in everyday life; therefore, they are not expected to be in mint or "brand new" condition. To be considered in excellent condition, no pieces should be missing. Chairs should be strong with no cracks, severe scratches, or blemishes.
- Original state - The closer the ladder back chair is to its original state, the more valuable it is. Refinishing or reupholstering depreciates the value. Likewise, if the legs, arms, posts, slats, or seat have been replaced, the value is diminished.
- Provenance - If you know the story behind a ladder back chair, it may be worth more. Provenance is the custodial history of the antique. A verified provenance can greatly enhance value.
- Quality - As with all antiques, the quality of the craftsmanship determines a great deal of the value. Since both experts and amateurs made these chairs, the quality of the piece is even more important to the value.
- Uniqueness - Ladder backs are a common chair. Unusual designs or ornamentation, as long as they are original to the chair, make the chair more desirable to a collector.
- Known designer - If the ladder back is made by a known designer, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it may be worth more. Some manufacturers also used furniture marks to identify their work.
- Set - If you have a matched set of ladder back chairs, they are generally more valuable than individual specimens.
Examples of Antique Ladder Back Chair Values
Once you have examine your chair for specific factors that will affect its value, you can compare it to other recently sold examples. Here are some ladder back chairs that sold on eBay in 2020:
- A "Hill House" ladder back chair designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh sold for almost $2,000. It had never been sat on.
- A 17th century ladder back chair made in Massachusets had extensive provenance and sold for almost $500.
- An 18th century ladder back chair with signs of refinishing sold for about $56.
Care of Antique Ladder Back Chairs
Taking care of ladder back chairs is easy. Simple, common sense care can help retain the chair's value.
- Do not refinish or repaint the chair.
- Have any repairs done by a professional conservator.
- Keep it out of extreme temperatures, humidity, and sunlight.
- Dust frequently with a soft cloth.
- Have a conservator evaluate the finish to determine if the ladder back would benefit from waxing or cleaning.
- Never use commercial cleaning products that contain silicone.