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Presidential Chairs

We are fortunate to have three chairs on exhibit that were used by presidents. Two Campeche chairs and one Federal side chair. The two Campeche chairs of James Madison, Jr. and Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor are on exhibit as “Presidential Cousins.”

Madison's chair (on right) was gift from Mrs. N. K. Lyons, and was crafted in Campeche, Mexico. The craftsman's initials are carved into the underside of the right armrest. Madison received the chair in 1820. There is an Madison family legend that the chair was sent as a gift from Thomas Jefferson. However, no one to date has been successful in locating documentation to validate the lore.

Taylor's chair (on left) is on loan from Mrs. Helen M. Taylor. This chair was made in Louisiana around 1840. This American-made chair has padded leather upholstery and castors on its feet. Little is known about this chair beyond its ownership, estimated date of creation, and state of manufacture. Was this made by an enslaved carpenter or a professional? We simply do not know.

The other chair on exhibit, also on loan from Mrs. Helen M. Taylor, belonged to President James Buchanan. It is a dining side-chair in the Federal style which, for furniture, was approximately 1790-1810. "The Chippendale vogue was followed by an era of transition toward Neoclassicism. Furniture made during the first phase of the Classic Revival period is called Federal."[1] (Horning) Within the Federal tradition are celebrated styles that include English-Hepplewhite and Sheraton.

The first indication of the Federal Period is the shield back of the chair; a trademark of that era. Interestingly, the front legs are tapered and gracefully flare outward. "Such out-curving legs showing French influence are rare and unusual on American chairs."[2] (Montgomery). As with all of the Arts, the European influence can often be found in Neoclassicism Period of American works. It is not safely possible to view the entire maker's marking on the underside of the chair; it could be JSXX or JXXX from what is visible. So, how can we tell where this chair was crafted? Looking at the Treasury of American Design by Clarence B. Horning and American Furniture, The Federal Period by Charles F. Montgomery, it became apparent that New England was the primary producer of furniture of the Federal Period. As President Buchanan lived his entire life in Pennsylvania, this chair more than likely was inherited from family in the region or possibly purchased in the region.

[1] Clarence B. Horning, Treasury of American Design, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. 1950. P. 197.

[2] Charles F. Montgomery, American Furniture, The Federal Period, The Viking Press, New York. 1966. P. 115.

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