Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Lives of Chairs and Families

When my mother's parents were newly married in the early 1900s in Boston, Massachusetts, they bought six Duncan Phyfe-style chairs with caned seats and a Duncan Phyfe-style dining table. It is possible that my grandfather bought the chairs second-hand and repaired and caned them. It is possible that he made them from a kit. They have odd quirks, including holes that are drilled at odd angles along with added nails and bolts and different kinds of wood for the stretchers. Not long after their marriage, our grandparents moved to Hastings, Minnesota, bringing the chairs and tables with them. My mother and her older brother grew up with those chairs and that table. As I understand, my grandfather re-caned the chairs whenever the caning broke down. After my grandmother died in the 1930s, the table and chairs were moved to Hermosa Beach in Southern California with my grandfather, my mother, my uncle, my aunt, and their daughter. After my grandfather died in 1945, the table and chairs went to my mother, and she brought them to her marriage to my father in 1948. The table and chairs were moved from Southern California to a small apartment in San Francisco, and then to an apartment in San Mateo, and from there to a house in Palo Alto, to a house in Taft, and to a house in Redwood City.

My sisters and I grew up with that table and those chairs, although we were taught to be very careful with the caned chairs, and our family rarely used the table except for holidays and special occasions. Of course, as small children, we stood on seats of the chairs and eventually the caning broke down, and the chairs went into the storage in the garage. In Redwood City, my parents bought a new dining table and new chairs with upholstered seats. I can remember the old dining table being used peripherally, at least until I went away to college in 1967. I remember seeing the chairs with their broken seats in the garage in storage. When my parents moved into an apartment again before moving permanently to their retirement home on the Mendocino Coast, I think that they must have sold the table or given the table away, but my mother kept the six old chairs.

When I was still in my 20s in my first years in Bellingham, my mother gave me two of the chairs. I took a class in furniture refinishing, and learned to do chair caning. I toyed with the idea of becoming a chair caner, but hurt my neck while working on the first chair that I was paid to cane and gave up on that idea.  That chair that I was paid to cane was an antique oak swivel office chair with a curved back and curved sides -- a complex caning job. I did a beautiful job of caning, but I didn't work quickly enough to make any money at that job. When I tried to work quickly, I hurt my neck.

After my mother died in 1994, the other four chairs came to me because my sisters didn't want them. Two were in very poor condition, and I put them in storage, but I had the other two re-caned by a professional caner along with my first two which also needed re-caning again. By that time I was working full-time and didn't have the time or energy for caning. 

Now, another 20 years later, I am having one chair caned at a time by an expert caner (take a look at her website) who just moved to Bellingham in the past few years. There hadn't been a caner north of Seattle for some time. The two chairs which were in such bad condition have been finished and repaired and re-caned now. Just this week, I picked up another finished caned chair and dropped off another for caning. After that, there is one chair left that needs caning. When I picked up the chair and dropped the other off, Stella showed me two chairs nearly identical to my set of chairs. However, those two chairs had had their legs sawed off so that they were about 6 inches shorter. They were clearly of the same design but had more caning holes and slightly different dimensions. They were like cousins to my chairs -- even down to the quirkiness of their construction!

I hope that either my nephew or one of my cousins on my mother's side of the family will take the chairs and use them when I am gone. One of them is for sitting on when I play my autoharp, ukulele and dulcimers. Two are at my dining table with my father's mother's chair with the needlepoint seat. One holds a knit afghan. One is in my bedroom. The last one that still needs caning is in my hall closet and may have to remain there with two stuffed bears and two bins of old books sitting on it. The chairs are dear to me because of their history in our family.


Sabine said...

Talk about coincidence! Back in the 1980s when I was living in Dublin, I was taught chair caning by a friend and actually tried to make a living from it for a while. I remember it as quiet, meditative work, although I would listen to the radio a lot before stopping for a walk by the sea with the dogs after lunch (toasted chees, mustard and alfalfa sprout sandwich every day).
In Germany, I was told off when I advertised because here it's a protected craft, ie you need to have a certificate by the respective guild.
This morning I looked at the three chairs that have been waiting in my attic for ages. A friend found them at a flea market. I still have all the gear...

am said...

Wonderful coincidence! Now I can picture you caning in Dublin in the 1980s, along with other vivid images from your full life. Your memories come alive for me in your writing. The radio. The sea. The dogs. The sandwich! I'd love to see a photo of your three chairs. Hope you get your gear out!

Thank you for mentioning the guilds in Germany. Your comment led me to wonder whether my great great grandfather belonged to a guild, as he is listed in U.S. censuses as a weaver and then a retired weaver. My grandfather's grandfather came from Lengsfeld near Eisenach in the mid-1800s. With a little Googling, I learned about the demise of a fustian-weaving (corduroy) mill in Lengsfeld in the mid-1800s and that a high percentage of the population of Lengsfeld came to the United States at that time. With a little more Googling, I came up with the fact that there were guilds for fustian weavers in the 13th century, but I wonder if weaving-mill workers would belong to a guild.

I love these connections, Sabine!

Sabine said...

You know, I wouldn't be surprised if your great great grandafther was indeed in a guild. Obviously, there was a lot of low wager labour and non-skilled workers employed but guild have been in existence since the Middle Ages.
Also, emigration was not easy and in many cases, based on agreements between governments/royals and agents were sent out into the impoverished areas to recruit emigrants. In many cases, skilled workers would get free passage.

If you can, get a copy of this magnificent movie on this subject (it is splendid!):

While it is set in a different area from where your relative came from, it will nevertheless give you great insights and bring that time very much to life.

am said...

I watched the three trailers on the movie website. Will see if I can find a way to see that movie. Thanks, Sabine!

Anonymous said...

Such a wonderful post! Love the story of the chairs with their long history. I also love reading Sabine's comments and yours. A great connection!