Everyone knows what Hitchcock chairs are, right? They are the small, rickety chairs with the rush or cane seats, usually painted black with a lot of leaves and flowers and fruit painted all over. Sometimes, they have solid seats that show a dark, natural wood surrounded by black paint and gold stripes and more leaves painted on the top of the back rail. Often, the chairs will have gold stripes and gold banding painted around the legs. They are important for that “early American” look in decorating circles. Sometimes the chairs are even signed by Hitchcock with the name of the town in Connecticut on the rear rail.
But even if it is signed, how do you know if it is a real Hitchcock chair? Anyone can sign a chair, and if it is signed, does that mean it is old? How old? A little history can solve many questions about Hitchcock chairs.
Lambert Hitchcock was born in 1795 in Cheshire, Conn., to a family that had come to the Colonies 160 years earlier. By 1814, he was apprenticed to Silas Cheney of Litchfield as a woodworker, and by 1818 he had moved to a small community in the township of Barkhamsted known as Fork-of-the-Rivers, at the junction of the Farmington and Still Rivers. The settlement was little more than an accumulation of log cabins and a sawmill, but Hitchcock saw promise there and went to work in the sawmill owned by some family acquaintances.
While working with Silas Cheney, Hitchcock had been influenced by the work of Eli Terry, the legendary clock maker who, to reach a wider market, designed cheap wooden works to replace expensive brass works for his clocks. To produce his wooden works in sufficient quantity, Terry devised an assembly line process of cutting and assembling the various parts. Hitchcock wanted to do the same thing with chairs.
In a small shed attached to the sawmill, Hitchcock tapped into the mill’s power source and began to turn out a small number of unfinished individual chair components. He sold these to Yankee traders, who sold them to mercantile stores as replacement parts for broken chairs. His business was so successful he had to hire extra help. His output eventually became so great that he expanded his market to the South, shipping great quantities of chair parts to Charleston, S.C., for further distribution. But he still had the dream of producing complete, finished chairs.
In 1820-21 he acquired an existing wooden, two-story building near the sawmill and began to produce the ubiquitous “Hitchcock” chair. The design was loosely based on the popular Sheraton style of the time but also included some details from Empire chairs and the famous “Baltimore” chairs.
Most of the chairs were painted black or dark green and were decorated by a process using stencils and rubbing a bronzing powder into a tacky finish coat. The result was a lustrous design that came to signify Hitchcock’s work. Pinstriping was done with paint, though never in gold. Striping was of yellow ocher. Gold was reserved for the banding that went only halfway around the turns in the legs.
By 1825, the company had a new home in a spacious three-story brick factory, built near the old one. And Hitchcock had started labeling his chairs with an identifying stencil. Since he employed almost everyone in the town, the town changed its name to “Hitchcocks-ville,” and he used that as part of his signature.
The earliest Hitchcock stencil read “L.HITCHCOCK. HITCHCOCKS-VILLE. CONN. WARRANTED.” But here’s the catch: Unlike most Hitchcock stencils you may have seen, the original stencil did not have the “Ns” backward in “CONN.” That little glitch did not appear until 1832, when the company, after a run of bad luck, had been through receivership and emerged in a new corporate form known as the Hitchcock, Alford Co.
The “Alford” was Arba Alford, Hitchcock’s brother-in-law. During this phase of production, the first stencils with backward “Ns” appeared, which is not really surprising when the bulk of the work was done by laborers who could not read or write.
While not all chairs from this period had the oddity, many did. That stencil read “HITCHCOCK.ALFORD.&Co. HITCHCOCKSVILLE.CONN. WARRANTED.” This company was dissolved in 1843, and Hitchcock started a new chair company in Unionville, Conn., at which time his stencils incorporated that town’s name. Hitchcock died in 1852.
In 1946, John Tarrant Kenney began to revive the company, and today the Hitchcock Chair Co. is once again in full swing, stenciling chairs in the original styling and using the wording of the original label.
With two small differences.
The modern company’s “L.HITCHCOCK” stencil uses the backward “N’s”, something never seen in the original label. The other disparity is the presence of the circled “R” of the trademark registration of the name, which did not exist in Hitchcock’s day.
So if the “Hitchcock” chair you have seen has a stencil that includes the terms “L.HITCHCOCK” and “HITCHCOCKS-VILLE” but also includes the backward “N’s” in “CONN,” it is a reproduction made since 1946. That was easy wasn’t it?
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