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Terry Kovel, Published May 10 2013

Kovels: Stop and think about chairs

A chair has four legs, a seat, a back and perhaps arms – or at least that was the rule for hundreds of years.

Do you ever stop to think about chairs? Before the 16th century, only the king, the church hierarchy or the most important person in the room sat on a chair. Others stood or used stools or benches. And, of course, since chairs represented authority, they were large, ornate and often gilded.

In fact, the more important the person, the taller the chair back and the more extravagant the chair’s decorations.

The symbolism has been retained in our language: A “chair” presides over a meeting, and the “first chair” in the orchestra has an important job. By the 16th century, wooden chairs were “downgraded” to furniture for everyone, and styles began to be updated about every 25 years.

By Victorian times, there was a chair for each person who sat at the dinner table, and soon sets of chairs were sold. In the late 19th century, technology spurred new ideas and unusual chairs.

Some chairs could fold, turn into beds, recline, swivel or be converted to wheelchairs. Other chairs were made to fit into a corner.

Updated ideas about work, play and children required dental chairs, office chairs, beach chairs, massage chairs, barber chairs and highchairs.

By the 20th century, wood was not the only material used to make chairs. Frames were made of iron, steel, aluminum and other metals, as well as plastic, plywood, cardboard, webbing and foam rubber. So, chairs no longer necessarily had four legs, a seat and a back, but were cone-shape, egg-shape, zigzag, an asymmetrical blob or even a plastic bubble hung by a chain. Strange, but a place to sit.

In 1959, Jean Royere of France made a canopy lounge chair of enameled steel and corduroy for the daughter of the Shah of Iran, Princess Shahnaz. The chair back was 70 inches high and curved forward to make a roof to protect her from sun or rain. It had bent metal arms and short legs that kept the chair just a little above the ground so she could lounge with her legs extended. The chair sold in 2013 for $21,250 at Rago Arts and Auction Center in New Jersey, even though it was worn and soiled.

Very extreme modern chairs in unusual designs and materials sell today for tens of thousands of dollars. Most are great to look at but uncomfortable to use. The modern chair is sometimes just a piece of sculpture without a job.

Q: I have a 12-inch folding ruler that advertises International Harvester Co. of America. It’s made of cream-colored celluloid and has two calendars on the back, one for 1906 and the other for 1907. The front ad reads, “Make it a Rule to bale your hay with I.H.C. Hay Presses.” Does it have any value?

A: International Harvester Co., headquartered in Chicago, was in business from 1902 to 1985. Advertising with giveaways like rulers, mirrors, calendars, paperweights and other small items has been popular since the late 1800s. Your ruler would appeal to collectors of advertising or of celluloid, an early plastic. But rulers like yours don’t sell for a lot of money. We have seen them offered for $10 to $25.

Q: My antique railroad lantern is marked “Thompson’s Pat. April 27, 1869” on the back. It’s marked “Pacific” on the front. What’s it worth?

A: Railroad lanterns are favorites of collectors of “railroadiana” (railroad antiques and collectibles). Nathan Thompson of Brooklyn, N.Y., received a patent for his “lantern improvement” in 1869. His lantern was produced for years and was purchased by many different railroad companies. The Pacific Railroad, chartered by Missouri in 1849, was reorganized in 1872 as the Missouri Pacific Railway. So it’s likely that your lantern was manufactured in the early 1870s. A Thompson Patent lantern like yours auctioned last fall for $143.


Put a small rug or dropcloth under a piece of furniture to move it. Pull the rug to slide the furniture across the room. This protects the furniture and floor. But don’t try this on a high-pile carpet.

For more information about antiques and collectibles and free price information, visit Kovel’s website, www.kovels.com.

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