This is an edited, “bloggified” version of a paper from my days in the historic preservation program at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve been wanting to share it with you—it’s a great example of just how much story can be behind something as simple as a chair!
Thanks to a certain rocking chair on display at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, I am a fan of rustic furniture. It’s an impressive example of twig work, linked to the Vanderbilt family. The marker states the piece is constructed of grapevine, burl and bark, with an oak plank seat. I love the juxtaposition of wild nature and civilization! There’s an almost mythic aura about the chair; it looks as if someone left five oak planks lined up on the ground overnight, and in the morning found a chair grown up around them!
HISTORY OF RUSTIC FURNITURE
Humans have crafted implements and furnishings from their surroundings since the dawn of time. The origins of modern-day rustic furniture go back hundreds of years, to China. When European travelers gained access to China in the early eighteenth century, they learned of their traditional landscape gardens, of which twiggy furniture was an important part. The concept was embraced through their admiration for these Chinese-style gardens.1
The first pattern book to feature rustic furniture designs in England was Edwards and Darly’s A New Book of Chinese Designs, published in 1754.2 The designs are most likely inspired by the Asian models, but the book is significant because it treats the style as an acceptable, if unconventional, form. It didn’t take long for its Asian origins to be forgotten, and by the late eighteenth century the rustic movement had spread among the aristocracy of Europe, especially England and France. Eventually rusticity was approached as an opportunity for handicraft; it became less about class, and more about getting back to nature. So by the mid-nineteenth century, the middle class was enjoying the style.3
The popularity of rustic furniture rose alongside the contrived landscape garden–both “improved” on nature. As the culture of the era shifted toward healthy living and recreation, rustic style gained an even stronger foothold. First used in outdoor public settings, eventually the style moved to the residential realm, mostly in yards, but also indoors.4
While urban Victorians grew steadily more enamored with the idea of pastoral life, there was still a desire to keep nature at arm’s length. By 1853 voices were being heard regarding the use of rustic furniture. In his Book of the Garden, Charles McIntosh implored,
Rustic seats should be confined to rustic scenery, and the seats for a lawn, or highly-kept pleasure garden, ought to be of comparatively simple and architectural forms.
Law laid down! Safe to say he would not have approved of twiggy furniture in the home. Even so, rustic furnishings crept from lawns to porches and even into halls and conservatories.5
There’s always a way to skirt a rule: make twig-like furniture. For example, this set of chairs currently resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They are carved wood, covered in gesso and brown paint:
Although these wouldn’t have been appropriate for the dining room, they were certainly much too good to be used outdoors.6
The industrial advance of cast-iron provided another option. Cast to emulate organic branches, ferns and grapes, it perhaps created the real boundary between the man-made house, and nature itself.7 Iron lends itself to short-term sitting, so use as a hall seat in the home or a public park bench were typical. Another quality that made cast-iron ideal for public spaces …its weight! Settees were quoted to be between 100-140 pounds each, making them difficult to steal from the park, and rather cumbersome for use at home.8
RUSTIC CULTURE: BACK TO NATURE
The value system behind rustic design has evolved over time. When European aristocracy embraced the concept in the mid-eighteenth century, it was a way to escape to a simpler life; for example, Marie Antoinette’s Petit Hameau de la Reine in the park of Versailles. Rustic life was considered “pure in its primitiveness.”9 It was yet another way for the wealthy to express their separateness.
Thinkers of the nineteenth century began to attach other values and benefits to the simple, rustic life…virtues that made the idea appropriate for the middle class. Likely in response to the urban congestion and decay in quality of life caused by the Industrial Revolution, exposure and exercise were considered healthy and character-building. This school of thought led to the establishment of urban parks.10
By the late 1880’s America was wholeheartedly embracing a “return to nature.” Educator G. Stanley Hall (1846-1924) was a proponent of rusticity, and instrumental in the rise of summer camps, rustic boarding schools and scouting organizations for children.
The idea of fresh air being life-affirming to the point of medicinal is documented in tales of invalids retreating to the wilderness, and emerging whole and healthy.11 Perhaps these restorative miracles helped to support the spread of nature as religion. This was also the hey-day of naturalists such as John Muir and John Burroughs. In Burroughs book, The Gospel of Nature, he says “…every walk in the woods is a religious rite.”12
What else contributed to the rustic movement? The closing of the American frontier.
In earlier times, the prospect of wilderness life was a real one. When the idea of the frontier being a thing of the past set in, Americans became aware of their pioneering heritage, it became something to celebrate and honor. Even the super-rich were on board! They built mountain wilderness retreats in the late nineteenth century: Camp Uncas, Sagamore Lodge, and Nehasane to name a few. These “retreats” were more like small towns, and every whim of the families was catered to, but they felt they were getting away from the city to a simpler life in the woods. The décor they chose had to be rustic. These massive retreats of the wealthy brought the rustic movement full-circle from its acceptance in European culture by the aristocracy there.13
The rustic furniture of the Victorian era is important, as it gained popularity at a time when the world was changing at lightning speed. It served as a way for people to get back to a time, if only temporarily, free from the urban hustle-and-bustle of the burgeoning Industrial Age. It also provided a connection to a simpler, past way of life, one that created a feeling of comfort and respect, in an increasingly frantic and impersonal world…a sentiment we can still relate to today.
Where shady trees invite the wanderer to a seat, how pleasant is it to find the means of rest and shelter in a garden…and lo! when we thought we were fast anchored to that favourite book, we, too, have drifted, like a weed upon the wave, into that tropical region where sleep, the ‘comfortable bird,’ broods over the troubled sea of mind, till it is hushed and smooth. –Shirley Hibbard (1825-1890)
It makes me want to say “Amen!”
Who knew one little chair had that much to say? What are your thoughts about rustic furniture? I adore it for accent pieces! Does this conjure up any camp or scouting memories? Share in the comments below. And don’t forget the My History Fix Facebook page for fun and interesting shares you don’t see in the blog.
 John Morley, The History of Furniture: Twenty-five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition, (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1999), 279.
 Craig Gilborn, Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987), 23.
 Robert McCracken Peck, “The Cult of the Rustic in Nineteenth Century America,” (masters thesis, University of Delaware), 3-5.
 Ibid., 35-37.
 Ibid., 28, 35.
 Ibid., 27.
 Ellen Marie Snyder, “Victory over Nature: Victorian Cast-Iron Seating Furniture,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1985): 222.
 Ibid., 235.
 Peck, “The Cult of the Rustic in Nineteenth Century America,” 13.
 Ibid., 27.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 15.
What an interesting story starting in China, continuing through Victorian times up to today. I’ve seen rustic iron chairs of this type in use today. Thanks for the history Christina.
Christina Branham says
I’m glad you enjoyed it Margie! 🙂