The concept of a high chair – a tall, small chair that makes it easier to feed, tend, and occasionally restrain a baby – has been around for a long time. The Metropolitan Museum has a 17th century high chair in its collections, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an early 18th century example. Just like adult-sized furniture, children’s pieces follow fashions and trends: some are expensive and elaborate, others are throwbacks to an earlier era, and some are more about function than looks. Here are two infant high chairs in our collections, used around the same time but of very different styles.
On the left is a late 19th century wooden high chair, 37″ tall, owned by the Jacobs family of Browningsville. It is handmade, and may have been built by Jonathan Jacobs (1845-1919) himself; he was a coach-maker, but an 1867 tax record identifies him as a cabinet-maker as well. Jonathan and his wife, Mary Manzella Brandenburg Jacobs, had four sons (Willard, Norman, Wriley, and Merle) born between 1875 and 1890. The chair descended through the family of the youngest son, Merle Jacobs, to Merle’s son Charles, who donated it to MCHS in 1996.
It’s a good old-fashioned Windsor style, often seen in 18th century high chairs, with nicely turned legs, rails, and stretchers, and a shaped seat. There’s no tray, which is not unusual for early (that is, before the 1950s or so) high chairs, but there is a little footrest, and a small metal eye centered under the seat indicates that there may have been a strap or other restraint to keep any Baby Jacobses from pitching themselves out of the chair headfirst.
Though in pretty good shape, it does show evidence of years of use; there are a few old stains on the seat, the finish on the seat and arms is worn down, and several of the peg joints have been repaired and glued.
The 37″ tall walnut high chair on the right (and in the detail shot, above) was used around the same time as the Jacobs family’s, but is an example of a popular commercially-made chair. (If you do an internet image search for “Victorian high chair,” you’ll see what I mean.) “Convertible” highchairs were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (examples here); some turned into chair-and-table combos, and others into rocking chairs or, like this one, wheeled walkers:
A number of manufacturers used this distinctive Eastlake-style chair-back design; ours, unfortunately, does not have a maker or store label. However, family history tells us that it was used by Nourse family of Washington, DC and Darnestown. (It was thought to have been used a generation earlier, by the Darbys of Seneca, but the design of the chair is too late for an 1850s date.) Mary Alice Darby (1845-1942) of Seneca married druggist/physician Charles H. Nourse; the 1880 census shows the family in a well-to-do household on New York Avenue, DC, with their children Upton Darby, four years old, and Mary Helen, five months old. They moved to Darnestown, near Mary Alice’s family, soon thereafter.
The highchair descended through the family of son Upton Darby Nourse to his daughter Rebecca Nourse Chinn and then to her daughter (the donor), Jane Chinn Sween. Like the Jacobs’ chair, it shows evidence of hard use – the woven back and stamped-leather seat bottom (below) are both replacements – and was probably used for more than one generation. The Nourse high chair can be seen, usually, in the dining room of the Beall-Dawson house (as a baby’s dining chair, not as a walker).
And now a bonus, to thank my readers for being so patient with today’s at-the-end-of-the-day posting! We have no photos of the above chairs in use … in fact, though we have many pictures of infants and children sitting in baby carriages, on ponies, on the laps and shoulders of family members, and even in a wheelbarrow, we have very few high chair photos. Happily, we do have this fantastic photo of infant James E. Mason (b. 1896) of Sugarland, posed for a photo in his chair.