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Hitchcock: Connecticut’s Chair

By Gillian McGuire | Fall 2017
Thoughts of industry in Northwest Connecticut’s history usually bring to mind a sole beacon of manufacturing in our mostly agricultural region, namely Northwest Connecticut’s iron forges, blast furnaces, and its production of weapons during the 18th & 19th centuries. Often overlooked, though, is another essential element of 19th-century America for which the Northwest Corner served as production headquarters: furniture. During the 1820’s and 30’s, the invention and production in Barkhamsted of the famous Hitchcock chair was fundamental to Litchfield County’s economy and central to the area’s identity. The Hitchcock “fancy chair”—which was for decades among the most coveted pieces of furniture in the United States—was the stylish product of a clever, innovative production process that brought both jobs and fame to Northwest Connecticut.
Lambert Hitchcock

Typical Hitchcock-style chair

The Hitchcock chair was the brainchild of young, ambitious furniture maker Lambert Hitchcock. Born in Cheshire in 1795, Hitchcock worked as an apprentice to Litchfield craftsman Silas Cheney before opening his own shop in 1818. Hitchcock took inspiration from his former master’s high-end, Empire style furniture as he sought to create his own characteristic pieces. Influenced by the Industrial revolution that was taking place around him, Hitchcock studied the mass production processes and interchangeable parts utilized by weapon and clock-makers of his era.

Hitchcock applied the 19th’s century’s new industrial practices to furniture making. He began conservatively turning out small quantities of individual chair components in a small shed attached to a sawmill and selling the pieces to merchants as replacement parts for broken chairs. After considerable success in this capacity, Hitchcock purchased a two story building in Barkhamsted, hired a staff of 100 and began producing finished, decorative chairs using his individual components. The process was clear cut: men used machines to form the pieces, children assembled them and the women decorated the chairs using stencils. The Hitchcock Chair Company and the eponymous Hitchcock chair were born.

Former Hitchcock chair factory, Riverton

Original Hitchcock chair, c. 1840

Hitchcock chairs had a distinct appearance. Usually made of black or dark green-painted maple, beech, and birch with seats of rush, cane, or wood, Hitchcock chair frames were smooth and curved. The front legs were turned and often tapered, and the back legs extended vertically up
to the stiles. Chairs were highly embellished with painted gold highlights, such as pinstripes and floral motifs, that were applied using a stenciling process rather than by hand. The finished result was a lustrous, ornate-looking chair that was deceptively inexpensive and quick to produce. Hitchcock chairs made the expensive furniture trends of the 19th century accessible to the general public of Northwest Connecticut. Word of the Hitchcock chairs quickly spread, and Hitchcock eventually expanded from his two-story shop into a three-story brick factory along a nearby river. By 1826, he had employed over 100 workers at his new location, including many women and children, whose nimble fingers were ideal for application of the popular stenciled highlights. So central became the Hitchcock Chair Company to the people of Barkhamsted that the name of the village surrounding the factory was changed to “Hitchcocksville”. This village name, which would stand until 1866, was memorialized on the Hitchcock chairs in the gold-stenciled inscription: “L. HITCHCOCK. HITCHCOCKS-VILLE. CONN. WARRANTED”.

Demand for the Hitchcock chair steadily grew beyond Connecticut. By the late 1820’s the Hitchcock Chair Company was producing 300 chairs a week and by 1840, had sold 200,000 chairs. The chairs at their peak popularity sold for between $0.49 to $1.50 and were shipped from Hitchcocksville to locations as far as Chicago and Charleston. In the pre-Civil War, industrial United States the Hitchcock chair represented progressiveness and became a coveted, but attainable, brand-name for the entire country. For the people of Barkhamsted and Northwest Connecticut, the chair also provided a livelihood, infusing their economy with jobs and capital and connecting their region to the rest of the United States.

For a number of years, the veritable craze around the Hitchcock chair endured. How-ever, the company could not keep pace with such high demand. Hitchcock struggled to establish efficient shipping and payment processes, and expansion efforts and satellite factories were unsuccessful. In 1832 Hitchcock reorganized and partnered with Arba Alford of Simsbury, Connecticut. The Hitchcock Chair Company dissolved in 1837 to form “Alford & Company”, then was renamed in 1840 as the “Hitchcocksville Company”. It permanently lost the Hitchcock name in 1844, but Alford continued to produce the same distinctive chairs in Hitchcocksville under various names until the 1860’s, when Hitchcocksville became Riverton and other industries moved in. Reproductions of the Hitchcock style came to be produced on a massive scale across the U.S. well into the 20th century. The innovative process by which the Hitchcock chair was created trans-formed the American furniture industry. The mass production of furniture using interchangeable parts became standard, and decorative stenciling of furniture took hold for generations. Today, Hitchcock-inspired chairs are nearly ubiquitous, but the originals, chairs made between 1826 to 1844 in their original finish and signed by Lambert Hitchcock himself, are worth several thousand dollars.

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