They Sold Like Hotcakes

The middle class was growing by leaps and bounds at the beginning of the 19th century, demanding cheap consumer goods. Retail showrooms, an ancestor of Rooms To Go, started popping up and eating into chairmakers’ profits. Windsor chairmakers quickly adjusted, redesigning their chairs, changing their joinery techniques, increasing their division of labor, and using interchangeable parts to speed up the chairmaking process. Did the Industrial Revolution really start in a chair shop?

Early 19th-century chairmakers were fast. Really fast. In her book, Windsor-Chair Making in America, Nancy Goyne Evans calculates that a chairmaker making batches of two dozen side chairs – starting from the log and using all hand tools – could have a chair ready for finish in about four hours. Fewer and fewer chairs had time-consuming elements such as reamed joints and deeply carved seats. The chairs might not last as long, or be quite as comfortable, but they were cheaper. And they sold like hotcakes. In 1820 alone, for example, chairmakers in Sterling, Massachusetts, sold 70,000 chairs. Many cities sold far more.

–Elia Bizzarri, excerpt from “For Speed: Fancy Windsor Chair Production in Early America,” in Issue Eleven


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