A Treasure in Plain Sight
by Carl G. Karsch
On the first floor of Carpenters' Hall are two silent witnesses to the birth of American independence.
Here's their story.
With the Carpenters' Company's handsome new building nearing completion in 1773, it was time to order chairs from one of the city's premiere Windsor chair makers. Joseph Henzey, a Quaker craftsman who lived on Front St. near Elfreth's Alley, had already made a dozen chairs for Franklin's Library Company, the Hall's first paying tenant. Plaster was barely dry before the Library Company — having outgrown their home at the State House — moved into the Hall's spacious second floor. But Henzey's chairs were not cheap. At 15 shillings each, they would have cost a journeyman three days' wages.
Henzey, one of 14 local chair makers, sold Windsor chairs throughout the colonies in a style which became known as "Philadelphia chairs." The Company ordered two comb-back "speaker's chairs" and a group of "sack back" chairs. Why "sack back?" A possible, if fanciful explanation is that in cold weather a cloth sack could be draped over the open back, providing some insulation from drafts.
Herb Lapp, an expert on Windsor chairs and craftsman of fine reproductions, says the chairs' original color was green, a color widely used before the Revolution. Later some were painted red or mustard color. Still later, probably in the late 19th century, they were painted black.
Who Sat Where? Delegates to the First Continental Congress convened in the Hall early in September, 1774. Where they sat is unknown. Peyton Randolph, a delegate from Virginia, became president of the Congress and no doubt occupied the high, comb-back speaker's chair. But delegates had weightier matters at hand than where they sat. One was an outspoken petition to King George III. It begins: "We, your Majesty's faithful subjects... beg to lay our grievances before the Throne." They listed 26, which had the King agreed, would have laid the foundation for independence. But the King refused even to read the petition. Delegates also unanimously adopted an embargo forbidding trade between Britain and the colonies, the empire's largest trading partner. Perhaps they could gain the attention, if not sympathy, of businessmen in Parliament. Nothing worked. Six months later the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord.
Amazing Survivors. How the chairs managed to escape destruction during the British occupation of Philadelphia borders on the miraculous. Most likely, members took them home for safekeeping. The Hall's first floor became a field hospital for wounded soldiers. In the basement, some former residents of the almshouse set up looms to weave linen, helping them survive. British soldiers were now quartered in the almshouse. Firewood for heating and cooking became desperately short. Everything wooden — abandoned houses, fences, even church pews — became fuel. Chairs would have made excellent kindling.
A Red Hot Brand. In January, 1779, six months after the British abandoned the city, the Carpenters' Company — like other Philadelphians — was hard at work repairing the damage to their homes and the Hall. Company possessions, chiefly the chairs, were returned. So there would be no question of ownership, Joseph Rakestraw received this request... "to have a Brand Made with the words Carpenters Co. thereon and to brand the Chairs and other Articles belonging to the Comp'y and to Draw on the Master for the pay for the brand." Eight years later, in 1787 — the year the Constitution was adopted — Rakestraw would make the weathervane for Washington's home at Mt. Vernon.
More Unique Chairs. Lining the second floor hallway are early 19th century chairs and settees, too often overlooked. They deserve better. No doubt they, too, are the largest such collection still with the original owners — a distinction shared with the First Continental Congress chairs on the first floor.
In 1857, with the Hall newly renovated, the Company needed more seating. They called on William Sanderson, whose shop was at 3rd & Walnut Sts., for "new chairs and 6 settees of the usual size and color; also repairs to chairs and new cushions." Price: $87.50. Although there is no record, Sanderson must have made chairs earlier for use in New Hall, the Company's meeting place after 1790.
Chairs by Sanderson and at least a dozen other chairmakers were a principal Philadelphia export. Ships' manifests list chairs being shipped to southern cities and throughout the Caribbean.
In a collaborative effort within the historic district, a portion of The Carpenters’ Company chair collection is now on display within two sites of Independence National Historical Park and also the Museum of the American Revolution; five of the Sack Back Windsor chairs used by the First Congress are now exhibited in the first floor Assembly Room of Independence Hall on Chestnut Street, between 5th and 6th Streets. This is the room where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both debated and signed. Specifically, the chairs are displayed in the room's southeast corner at the tables that represent North and South Carolina. Independence Hall is open to visitors daily throughout the year. Timed tickets are required for Independence Hall tours from March through December (in January and February, tours are first come first served).
The William Sanderson chairs are now exhibited in the third floor south bedchamber of the Bishop William White House at 309 Walnut Street. White was the rector of Christ Church during the Revolution and until his death in 1836. He was also the chaplain of the Second Continental Congress and of the U.S. Senate when it met in Philadelphia's Congress Hall at 6th and Chestnut during the time the city was the capital of the United States (1790-1800). The Bishop William White House is open for guided tours from May through November. Tour reservations are required, available at the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market.
One of the two existing comb-back Speaker's chairs used by the President of the First Congress is now on display in the newest addition to the district, The Museum of the American Revolution (specific location details to come). By maximizing the visibility of these important objects throughout historic Philadelphia, the Company’s mission to “interpret for the public the significant events that took place in or around the Hall” is further strengthened.