Carpenters' Hall

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A Treasure in Plain Sight

By Carl G. Karsch

In the Hall's basement, Herb Lapp begins examination of a "sack back" Windsor. His newly perfected technique uses digital photographs and precise measurements to identify a Windsor chair's maker.

On the first floor of Carpenters' Hall are seven silent witnesses to the birth of American independence.

Here's their story.

With the Carpenters' Company's handsome new building nearing completion in 1773, it was time to order chairs from one of the city's premiere Windsor chair makers. Joseph Henzey, a Quaker craftsman who lived on Front St. near Elfreth's Alley, had already made a dozen chairs for Franklin's Library Company, the Hall's first paying tenant. Plaster was barely dry before the Library Company — having outgrown their home at the State House — moved into the Hall's spacious second floor. But Henzey's chairs were not cheap. At 15 shillings each, they would have cost a journeyman three days' wages.

Henzey, one of 14 local chair makers, sold Windsor chairs throughout the colonies in a style which became known as "Philadelphia chairs." The Company ordered two comb-back "speaker's chairs" and a group of "sack back" chairs. Why "sack back?" A possible, if fanciful explanation is that in cold weather a cloth sack could be draped over the open back, providing some insulation from drafts.

Windsor chairs used by delegates to the First Continental Congress are unique. They are believed to be the largest Windsor chair collection still with the original owners. Peyton Randolph, in portrait at left, was elected president of Congress and occupied the tall, comb-back "speaker's chair."

Herb Lapp, an expert on Windsor chairs and craftsman of fine reproductions, says the chairs' original color was green, a color widely used before the Revolution. Later some were painted red or mustard color. Still later, probably in the late 19th century, they were painted black.

Who Sat Where? Delegates to the First Continental Congress convened in the Hall early in September, 1774. Where they sat is unknown. Peyton Randolph, a delegate from Virginia, became president of the Congress and no doubt occupied the high, comb-back speaker's chair. But delegates had weightier matters at hand than where they sat. One was an outspoken petition to King George III. It begins: "We, your Majesty's faithful subjects... beg to lay our grievances before the Throne." They listed 26, which had the King agreed, would have laid the foundation for independence. But the King refused even to read the petition. Delegates also unanimously adopted an embargo forbidding trade between Britain and the colonies, the empire's largest trading partner. Perhaps they could gain the attention, if not sympathy, of businessmen in Parliament. Nothing worked. Six months later the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord. (Read: "The First Continental Congress.")

"Carpenters Co" was burned into the underside of each chair seat. William Dawson, maker of the brand, advertised himself as a "Cutler making scythes, sickles, iron work for grist and sawmills, chocolate mills, smith's bellows and most sorts of smith's work."

Amazing Survivors. How the chairs managed to escape destruction during the British occupation of Philadelphia borders on the miraculous. Most likely, members took them home for safekeeping. The Hall's first floor became a field hospital for wounded soldiers. In the basement, some former residents of the almshouse set up looms to weave linen, helping them survive. British soldiers were now quartered in the almshouse. Firewood for heating and cooking became desperately short. Everything wooden — abandoned houses, fences, even church pews — became fuel. Chairs would have made excellent kindling. (Read: The Battle for Philadelphia.)

A Red Hot Brand. In January, 1779, six months after the British abandoned the city, the Carpenters' Company — like other Philadelphians — was hard at work repairing the damage to their homes and the Hall. Company possessions, chiefly the chairs, were returned. So there would be no question of ownership, Joseph Rakestraw received this request... "to have a Brand Made with the words Carpenters Co. thereon and to brand the Chairs and other Articles belonging to the Comp'y and to Draw on the Master for the pay for the brand." Eight years later, in 1787 — the year the Constitution was adopted — Rakestraw would make the weathervane for Washington's home at Mt. Vernon.

Photo c. 1870 shows chairs by William Sanderson, gaslight chandelier and tile floor. Central heating replaced fireplaces, which were sealed until restoration in late 1960's.

More Unique Chairs. Lining the second floor hallway are early 19th century chairs and settees, too often overlooked. They deserve better. No doubt they, too, are the largest such collection still with the original owners — a distinction shared with the First Continental Congress chairs on the first floor.

In 1857, with the Hall newly renovated, the Company needed more seating. They called on William Sanderson, whose shop was at 3rd & Walnut Sts., for "new chairs and 6 settees of the usual size and color; also repairs to chairs and new cushions." Price: $87.50. Although there is no record, Sanderson must have made chairs earlier for use in New Hall, the Company's meeting place after 1790.

Chairs by Sanderson and at least a dozen other chairmakers were a principal Philadelphia export. Ships' manifests list chairs being shipped to southern cities and throughout the Caribbean.

Like the Company's remarkable library (Read: All In One Room) the one-of-a-kind chairs are part of the fabric that is Carpenters' Hall.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Open free to the public daily, except Mondays (and Tuesdays in Jan. and Feb.), from 10am-4pm

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a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.