With their simple beauty and timeless appeal, antique Windsor chairs are a popular style that works in many homes. These wooden chairs became popular starting in the 18th century, and many manufacturers still produce them today. Learning to identify antique Windsor chairs is an important skill if you're hoping to collect these useful and beautiful pieces.
History of Windsor Chairs
Windsor chairs were first made in the 18th century, but examples made before 1790 are rare. These chairs have a fascinating history, starting with their name. From early times in the 18th century, stick-back chairs were being made in the Thames Valley area of England, and the town of Windsor was the distribution point where the chairs were transported to London and other counties. According to Sandy Summers, owner of Adams Antiques and a member of both the BADA (British Antique Dealers' Association) and the LAPADA (Association of Art and Antique Dealers), this is the likely origin of the name.
Windsor Chairs as an Ergonomic Development
"Windsor chairs were an ergonomic design development in their day," Summers says, noting that this type of chair reflected a growing understanding that chairs with shaped seats and curved backs suited the human body better than the older style chairs. Earlier chairs, and other styles of chairs, were constructed as a framework of right angle joints, with the seat dictated by the space created by this framework. In contrast, the Windsor was a chair where the design construction was centered around the seat with the legs joined into the underside of the seat and the back of the chair and arms joined to the top.
Increasing Popularity of the Style
Windsor chairs were surprisingly comfortable, so they took off in popularity. Many manufacturers began production of this style during the 19th century, and the increasing levels of mechanization during the Victorian era led to a huge number of these chairs on the market. Summers reports that "the majority of good quality Windsor chairs date from 1820 to 1870 while this was still a small cottage industry."
Identifying Antique Windsor Chairs
If you're shopping for antiques or simply want to be able to identify a vintage Windsor chair you may already own, it's helpful to know how to spot one of these classic treasures when you see it. From the traditional furniture woods used in Windsors to the styles they came in, there are lots of clues that you may have a genuine antique.
Look for Traditional Woods Used in Windsor Chairs
"As yew wood was relatively rare compared to the common ash, yew wood Windsor's were a status symbol," she says. "Owning a set was a demonstration of your wealth. The ash and elm Windsors were made for those who could not afford yew wood."
Get to Know the Styles of Windsors
Although there are no standard definitions of different styles of Windsor chairs, there is a broad way of categorizing based on the style of the back:
- Stick-back - a hoop-shaped back, with long, vertical spindles forming the interior of the back
- Splat-back - a hoop-shaped back, with long, vertical spindles on either side of a central back splat
- Comb-back - long, vertical equal-length spindles going into a straight horizontal top piece to form a comb shape
Some antique rocking chairs are also Windsors, and you'll notice that Windsor chairs come with and without arms. These varieties are interesting for collectors and enthusiasts alike.
Learn the Differences Between European and American Windsors
Part of antique Windsor chair identification is determining where the chair was made. Even though the basic construction and build are the same, Summers notes that there are some notable differences between English and American Windsors:
- Back style - American Windsors rarely have a "splat-back" style with the decorative central splat.
- Stretcher type - The stretcher, or part connecting the legs, varies. American Windsors have legs were connected by a simple "H" stretcher. English yew wood Windsors often had a curved crinoline stretcher.
- Leg angle - The angle of joining the legs to the seat is different, with American Windsors having legs pointing out at a steeper angle than English ones.
- Wood used - The wood used in the chairs was also different. American Windsors commonly used pine for the seats, hickory for the spindles, and maple for the turned arms and legs.
Look for Furniture Marks and Labels
While the oldest Windsors may not be marked at all, many of the factory-produced models feature labels and furniture marks. Look on the underside of the seat for any type of marking. This can offer you a clue about the manufacturer and possibly the time period the chair was produced.
Spot a Fake Antique Windsor
Although it can take years of experience to be certain whether you're looking at an antique or a reproduction Windsor chair, Summers says there are some clues that can help:
- The color of reproduction chairs can be off. They may appear too light, or they can look too dark because a dark stain has been applied.
- They can look too perfect. With a genuine antique chair, you expect to see some natural variation and unevenness in color.
- Real antique chairs have patina, or wear from use. The wood edges will be softened. The edge of the wood in a reproduction chair is crisp and sharp.
What to Look For When Buying a Windsor Chair
If you're interesting in buying an antique Windsor chair, look for chairs in good condition with solid wood and no obvious repairs. Summers says yew wood chairs will always be the most valuable, but they aren't the only choice. "The wider availability of 19th century Windsors makes them a practical option for a collector looking for a set of fine dining chairs," she notes.
Even though a perfectly matched set is rare, the main thing to look for is how well matched the set is. The chairs should be similar in size and shape to one another. Summers adds, "the design of central back splat, and the number of spindles either side, the design of turnings to the under-arm supports, and the turnings to the legs should all match."
Value of Antique Windsor Chairs
A set of antique Windsors can sell from about $500 to well into the thousands, depending on the quality and condition. Single chairs range from about $100 to thousands, with age being a major factor in value.
"Those looking for single chairs might like to hunt for 18th Century examples, although they are extremely rare and, consequently, expensive," says Summers. "There are some wonderful chairs with elaborate Gothic designs, dating circa 1760 - 1780, but a fine example would easily cost £15,000 - 25,000 ($21,625 - 36,042) or more."
A good way to assess the value of an antique chair is to compare it to recently sold examples. For instance, a child's Windsor chair from the 19th century sold for about $500 on eBay. It was constructed of elm and ash and was in excellent condition. Summers notes that she recently saw a beautiful chair, dating from 1740, sell for more than $37,000 at auction.
A Chair That Will Last Many Lifetimes
It's important to use proper antique furniture cleaning methods to preserve the chair's beauty. A good quality furniture polish can help keep the wood from drying out without damaging the patina. Properly cared for, an antique Windsor chair can last many lifetimes.