Early English Oak Backstools

Until the middle of the seventeenth century, a typical house would have had only two chairs, one each for the master and mistress. Everyone else sat on stools or benches (called "forms"). Seating was more a matter of social status than of comfort. Consequently chairs were throne-like -- they were large, elaborately carved and had arms. (The word "chair" meant armchair: what we now know as side chairs did not exist.)

The desire for comfort slowly increased as the 17th century progressed, and stools began to be fitted with backs, to become backstools. The name preserved the status difference between stools and chairs. In the last quarter of the century, dining became more domestic and less public. Consequently, small gate-leg tables seating four to eight replaced the long tables, now often called refectory tables, of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

During the reign of William & Mary, sitting on backstools around a gateleg table became the increasingly popular method of dining. Consequently, backstools are relatively easy to find, and are more affordable than the stools and forms that they replaced. The best backstools were upholstered in leather or turkey work, but the ones we deal with here are the work of the joiner.

Because they were made for the common man and woman, these "joyned" backstools are characterized by a sturdy simplicity. This does not mean, however, that they lacked good proportions or attractive styling, far from it. Today, they serve well as interesting, attractive, and useful side chairs.

Example 1, made in about 1640, is as early an example as you would expect to find, and clearly shows its origin as a joint stool to which a back has been added. Its solid paneled back with carved lozenge is derived directly from the chairs of the period.

The next four examples are from the last quarter of the century. and between them illustrate most of the features a collector should look for.

Example 1

The crest rail is the most striking feature. On Example 2 it is strongly arched and has an interesting profile. Its carving fleshes out the scrolls and gives detail to the overall shape. In Example 3, the crest rail has an equally strong, but simpler, profile and less developed carving. The turned finials and stiles, however, show an extra level of craftsmanship that is lacking in the other examples. The crest rail of 4 has been simplified further still, and the yoke of 5 is the simplest crest rail of all. (It is worth noting that in this period crest rails are slung between the stiles: from the Queen Anne period onwards, they typically surmount them.)

Example 2

The splats show a similar gradation of quality. Example 2 has a fielded (or raised) panel, on example 3 the splat resembles a flat panel, on 4 there is no paneling but only simple groove moldings on each vertical edge, and 5 has a plain board as a splat.

Each of the backstools would have had a thin squab cushion, but only on the second is the seat dished to hold it. All the others have plank seats.

Example 3

The legs of all the stools are block and vase turned, with 2, 4 and 5 having the most shapely turnings and 3 the crudest. 2, 4 and 5 also have small button feet, and two side stretchers, which makes them stronger, particularly when the diner leans back. Example 3 has block feet and a single side stretcher: it may have a good back, but it has the poorest undercarriage of the four.

All the stools have a turned front stretcher: Example 2 has the finest turnings, but 3 is the boldest. 4 is attractively worn, and 5 is perhaps the least interesting. Connoisseurs would argue the merits of 2 versus 3, but others might prefer the characterful wear of Example 4.

Example 4

Each of these four stools has some of the most desirable features, and none has all of them. Nonetheless, Example 2 has more than the others: it is the best. Example 3, however, is not far below (although it has a poor undercarriage, it has a good back, and backs count for more because they are more visible). Example 4 is simpler, but it has good proportions, some good features, and a sturdy charm. Example 5 is an honest, no-frills example of the form, exhibiting character without pretension.

For the collector of early English oak these examples would form the basis of a good harlequin set of backstools to set around an early gate-leg table.

(All color photographs from our inventory)

Example 5