The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Antique Rocking Chairs

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Antique Rocking Chairs

Old rockin' chair's got me...Cane by my side...Fetch me that gin, son...'Fore I tan your hide" Hoagy Carmichael, "Old Rockin' Chair" 1929

This opening verse from Carmichael’s song has been sung and recorded by notables from several generations. Carmichael himself recorded the song, as has Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Eric Clapton.

The song has an easy, flowing rhythm that mimics the movement of a rocking chair; a motion that all are familiar with. Most homes have a rocking chair located wherever the family gathers, either inside or on a porch. For antique furniture collectors, a well-built rocker provides a level of satisfaction that few chairs can; they are visually appealing and a pleasure to use. The rocking chairs' illustrious history makes them in-demand items that may bring a good return on one's investment. Plus, recent research has directly linked rockers to improved health.

Let's have a look at the origins of the antique rocking chair; their three major styles; discuss a few points of connoisseurship; and how collecting (and using) them may improve your health.

Popular opinion holds that the rocking chair was invented in 1774 by Benjamin Franklin. It wasn't. It may not even be American in origin. The "American Colonial" origin notion was first proposed by authors Walter A. Dyer and Esther S. Fraser in their 1928 book "The Rocking Chair: An American Institution". Most early 20th Century writers referenced Dyer & Fraser's book when discussing rocking chairs, and their notion went unchallenged until 1957, when Marion Day Iverson published her book "The American Chair 1630-1890". Evidence shows that Swedes built a six-legged rocker in 1740, and slat-back rockers dated to the late 17th Century have been found in New England. Both finds pre-date Old Ben.

All early examples of rocking chairs, according to Iverson, were made with very stout legs that could withstand the rocking motion. This is a good scouting tip for collectors: big, bulky (ugly?) legs may be an indicator of age. By 1790, rocking chairs had become so popular that many furniture makers modified their regular stock of chairs to accommodate the curved runners needed to make them rock. Many of these chairs have not survived because the legs weren't built for rocking. Over time, joinery and glue joints fail, and the cross-grain stresses on curved runners cause them to break. Effectively repairing such damage is troublesome, even for skilled craftsmen. If you find an "antique" rocker with fine lines, delightful eye appeal, in excellent condition, and no signs of having been repaired, it's probably a fake.

Wooden rocking chairs had an inherent problem: they tended to bounce and creep across uneven wooden floors. These problems were remedied in April 1878, when Christian Spoeel of New York patented his platform rocker. Platform rockers were a hit with the Victorian-era upper-middle-class, as they could be upholstered to match a household's parlor set. The design of a platform rocker allowed for a rocker's curved frame to be placed on a stationary base; the rocking motion was assisted by elliptical C-springs. Over time, C-springs were replaced by steel coil-springs attached to a cast-iron mounting plate.

Steel springs of any type eventually lose their tension. Antique platform rockers that have never had their springs replaced are impossible to use, as they give a feeling of tipping over. Collectors who encounter such rockers should be aware that some springs are no longer available, and others are difficult to find. Coil-springs can be found online at antique-hardware.com or Rockler Hardware.

A third major development in rocking chairs came in 1931, when American Alexander Brown patented a glider rocker. Gliders operate with a motion similar to a child's swing, but with the seat frame hung by parallel arms to maintain a "flat" glide.

The three types of rockers listed above constitute the major categories of antique rockers that are available. The late 20th Century's additional developments include the swivel rocker, rocker-recliner, glider lift-chair, and combinations of all of these.

As with any item of antique furniture, it's important to examine the item carefully to make sure it's safe to use, and to assess repairs that might be needed. Wooden chairs are straightforward to inspect because everything is visible. Upholstered platform rockers and gliders are problematic because the wooden joints, support, and mechanical systems are covered with fabric. Here's a five-point examination checklist for upholstered rockers:

  1. Standing in front of the chair, grip both arms and gently move them outward. Excessive movement may indicate loose arm joints
  2. Push firmly on the seat center and run your hand across the upholstery. If you can feel the springs or if there are dips the surface the seat will need re-springing. Push against the back upholstery to be sure that it has firm and even support.
  3. Turn the chair over to inspect the type of support system used. Old dust covers (covering the chair bottom) are often brittle and torn. If so, the underside of a chair can be seen with a flashlight without removing the cover. Look for splits in wooden rails, bent or untied upholstery springs, and corroded rocker springs.
  4. If the upholstery support system is comprised of zig-zag springs and foam, the chair has been reupholstered in recent decades.
  5. Lastly, sit in the chair and cautiously rock backwards. If the chair is comfortable, rocks without a "tipping feeling", and has exhibited no broken or loose parts then it is a useable chair.

Regardless of the type (or age) of rocking chair, the very act of rocking may have positive health effects. In a two-year study, assistant professor Nancy Watson at the University of Rochester School of Nursing demonstrated that regular use of a rocking chair decreased stress and depression, improved circulation, and reduced required medication among eleven of the study's twenty-five patients ages 72-95. Participants rocked an average of 100 minutes per day.

Other research has demonstrated that rocking hastens post-surgery recovery (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center), reduces symptoms of vertigo (Baylor College of Medicine) increases mobility (University of Queensland) chronic pain (University of South Carolina) and decreases pain during labor.

Hundreds of years of history, technological improvements, and sheer pleasure of use are the reasons most often given for collecting antique and vintage rocking chairs. American actress Monica Potter sums up collectors' sentiments: "I shop at thrift stores a lot. I have a lot of silver pitchers and I put my flowers in those. I collect antiques, so there are a lot of old rocking chairs... My friends call my home the vortex because nobody wants to leave."

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