One example that often puzzled people is the three-legged turned chairs that we see frequently in Dutch genre paintings of the 17th century. There are many of these chairs surviving in English collections, some quite elaborate, some fairly simple. The principal feature is a board seat secured in grooves plowed in the seat rails. For this sort of seat to work, the rails have to be at the same height, unlike a woven chair seat in which the side and front rails are staggered. In the board-seated chairs, the seat rails intersect inside the chairs’ posts. Often there is a rectangular tenon that is pierced by a round turned tenon. Some chairs have large and small turned tenons. There are many configurations, all amounting to the same thing. We find the same construction on some well-known early 17th-century chairs from Plymouth Colony. These four-legged turned chairs are imposing objects, certainly significant status pieces of the day. The two best-known examples were made for two leaders of that Colony: William Bradford, the 2nd governor; and William Brewster, one of the church elders. Brewster died in 1644, making his chair one of the earliest surviving works from New England.
But what about the three-legged versions? When confronted with these objects, some people want to know why “they” made chairs with three legs. Maybe because they look so strange and unfamiliar to modern viewers, they go looking for reasons for their existence. Uneven floors are often cited as the principal rationale. We all know that three legs will sit on uneven floors, whereas four will often leave a chair tilted, wracking or otherwise unstable.
It’s a nice idea, and tempting to subscribe to, but the paintings often show three-legged and four-legged chairs side-by-side. And the most elaborate three-legged survivors are so embellished and well-developed that they can’t be considered strictly functional. They are high-status pieces, just like the Bradford and Brewster chairs.
“They save wood” is another notion I heard a lot when looking for an explanation. While technically true - there’s one less post and fewer rails - the savings in wood get lost in time when it comes to assembly. Fitting and assembling a four-legged chair is much simpler than the three-legged version. A chair with four legs can be made into sub-assemblies, usually the back and the front, then you drop the sides into one of these, slip in the seat, and drive the other sub-assembly down onto the sides. Simple. In assembling a three-legged version, you can’t assemble the front, then drop the sides in. The way the joints intersect means you have to drive them bit-by-bit in tandem around the seat board. I’ve made enough of them to know that you have to be having a good day to get one assembled. So, yes, you save some wood, but lose some time, even when it goes well.
For me, the real question about three-legged chairs of the 17th century is not why did they make them, but why didn’t they make them in New England? Given the number of surviving chairs of this form in old England, and their presence in datable Dutch paintings, we know they were commonly made and used throughout much of the century. And yet, in New England, we have never found a single example made of native woods, with one exception. The so-called “Waldo” chair (named for the family it descended in) doesn’t really follow the typical format of a three-legged chair of the period. It is more of a hybrid, combining aspects of joined wainscot chairs with the turned three-legged versions.
How could it be that this chair form got dropped from the repertoire of every turner who came to New England? Maybe the ones made in England were made by Dutch craftsmen working there. But if so, why don’t we see them in early New York/New Amsterdam works?
– Peter Follansbee, excerpt from “Everybody Who Knows ‘Why’ is Dead: Research Questions I Gave Up On” in The First Three Issues