History of the American Rocking Chair

THE American rocking chair, out of fashion and favor in the last generation, may be restored to its old place of honor in the home by the recent declaration of an eminent French medical man that rocking quiets the nerves.

The rocking chair, comparatively unknown in Europe, has been regarded generally as an American contrivance, but students of furniture are unable to trace its origin. Rocking chairs are said to have been known in India ages ago, where they were regarded as cooler than the ordinary kind.

A Rocking Chair made circa 1750

Courtesy Metropolitan Museum

Rocking chairs were probably made in America before 1750; but there is no historical record to bear this out. It is thought that the first rockers were merely ordinary Windsor chairs cut down and fitted with short boards rounded on the bottom.

Twenty or thirty years later these boards were made longer in the rear and shorter in the front to increase safety and comfort. The sign of a genuine old rocking chair is the shortness of the rockers.

If there is little light on the rocking chair's origin there are early enough references in literature to the joys of rocking. It is true that most of these refer to the cradle, but the rocking chair is merely a cradle for grown-ups. In fact, there are old American prints showing a combined rocking chair and cradle; mother rocked baby and herself with one motion.

Chaucer, the 14th-century English poet, said: "The cradel at hir beddes feet is set to rokken."

Dryden. in the 17th century, translating the Latin poet, Ovid, wrote:
"High in his hall, rocked in the chair of state, The King with his tempestuous council sate." In, the court of Charles I of England, the Court Rocker was an important person.

Everyone is familiar with the lullaby, "Rockabye, Baby, on the Tree Top."

Dr. Flavius Packer, a New York specialist in the treatment of nervous disorders, who has many rockers at his sanatorium, says: "Some people have scrapped the cradle—but it will come back.

The babe of the future will be rocked to sleep again while mother sits in a low rocker and busies her hands with something equivalent with the knitting of yesterday. It may be with holding a book on science, a brush, or with the operation of a soundless typewriter."

Fashions in clothes have always governed fashions in chairs. Originally an emblem of authority and used only by leaders, the chair with a back and arms did not become a part of the commoner's household furnishings until a comparatively late date in the world's history. From that time on its design was changed with every new mode in men's and women's clothes.

Thus during the times when elaborate hoops, farthingales and similar vanities were fashionable, huge chairs, many armless, were needed to accommodate the sitter and her cumbrous clothing.

In the 18th century, when men of fashion wore costly laced coats the "conversation chair" was contrived, in which the dandy of the period sat facing the back and allowed his precious coattails to dangle unimpeded over the front.

In a like manner, with the coming of the straight-front corset for women, the rocker lost vogue, it being impossible for a woman rigidly dressed to sit at ease in the comfortable angles of the rocker.

The straight-front, like other fashions, has had its vogue. With its departure the rocking chair may be expected to take again its honored place in the American household for the comfort it affords frayed nerves.

Source: THE MENTOR, Volume 9, Number 6, July 1, 1921, Page 38

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