What They Sat Upon

We are getting ready to embark upon another conservation project related to the Dining Room, but as usual, it is one that required some investigation beforehand.  As you may remember, Kenmore’s Dining Room will eventually have 15 chairs, in order to complete the listing provided in the 1781 probate inventory.  We already have 8 of those chairs in the collection, but they were acquired in different batches, from different sources, and at different times, resulting in a hodge-podge of seat upholstery fabrics and various states of repair.  The goal of our next conservation project will be to stabilize all 8 chairs and to upholster them in matching materials.

But what should these chairs be upholstered in? As we discussed in this post, chairs found in bedchambers were often upholstered in fabrics that very closely matched the bedhangings, window curtains and floor coverings.  Matching textiles were incredibly important for a well-appointed room.  The same might be true for parlors and drawing rooms – upholstery should match the window curtains and carpet.  In most cases, all of these chairs would have been slipcovered in the summer months, and quite possibly for much of the year in rooms that were used heavily.  But what about dining room chairs?

Because dining rooms were often intended to be the most impressive of all the public entertaining spaces in a house, the textiles used there would usually be the best.  The catch of 18th century decorating was that the room requiring these top-of-the-line carpets and upholstery was also the most dangerous room in the house for such textiles.  Large amounts of food and beverage being carried to and from the room, being passed among large numbers of slightly inebriated guests or being served by a wait staff was a recipe for catastrophic spills.  With cleaning tools available to an 18th century housewife, such spills of red wine and greasy food were near-impossible to remove entirely.  Therefore, the best textiles in the house usually remained covered, especially when company came to dine.  A heavy blanket, usually made of green baize, was laid out over the carpet under the table and chairs to catch falling food and crumbs.  Slipcovers were used on the chairs, and some authorities advised against the use of window curtains altogether because they would catch and hold the smells of steaming food. 

"The Dinner Party" by Henry Sargent, ca. 1821. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A close look at this scene reveals a green baize cloth under the table.

So, if the dining room chairs were almost always covered, did they have to be upholstered in fabric to match other textiles in the room? The answer is probably not, and in fact they weren’t really upholstered in fabric at all.  Most 18th century dining rooms featured chairs covered in either leather or horsehair.  Again, these materials would not hold smells as readily as the wool seats found in other rooms, and should the occasional meal be eaten on them without the slipcovers in place, leather and horsehair were much easier to clean. 

Unfortunately, we have no record of whether the Kenmore Dining Room chairs were in leather or horsehair, so we had to make our decision based on some other clues.  The chairs we will be using for the Dining Room are not original to Kenmore – the Lewis family did not own them – but they were very likely made in Fredericksburg by William Walker Jr., a member of the well-known Walker family of cabinet makers, who supplied furnishings to both the Washington and Lewis families.  On the underside of the Walker armchair which will be used in the Dining Room, there is a tiny fragment of leather upholstery material still tacked in place.  If it proves to be original material, we may very well have an important clue as to what Walker’s chairs were covered in.  That clue may be enough for us to make a decision about our dining rooms chairs’ final covering. 

Leather fragment and tack on the Walker armchair

Once again, stay tuned to see the outcome of this project!

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