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Convertible Settee

Not on view

Convertible Settee

Maker: Chester Johnson (1796 - 1863; active Albany, New York and New York, New York, 1819-20, 1826, and 1827-54)

Date: 1827-1830
Medium: Soft maple, beechwood, yellow-poplar, cherry, rush, paint
Dimensions:
Overall: 35 x 80 1/8 x 24in. (88.9 x 203.5 x 61cm)
Signed: Stencilled label: 'C. JOHNSONS. PATENT.'
Credit Line: Emily Lowery Beardsley Bequest
Object number: 61.65
Label Text
In 1827 cabinetmaker and innovator Chester Johnson patented "an improvement in the manufacture of sofas." He advertised that his convertible settees combined economy and luxury. Johnson explained that his product "is constructed on principles peculiar to itself, with the size, strength, and convenience of the ordinary four poster Bedstead, it possesses the symmetry, beauty and finish of the ornamental parlor Settee or Sofa." The ornamentation for the convertible settee is based on painted fancy chairs. The settee is grained to imitate rosewood and features painted and stenciled gold decoration to simulate gilded brass mounts.

Although this example has been altered and can no longer function as a bed, it is clear that originally the front seat rail and first set of legs were meant to be pulled forward to draw out the extra section that thereby doubled the depth of the settee to form the bedstead.

ATD

Stenciled label located under each arm.

Text Entries

This convertible settee bears the stenciled name of its maker (fig. 22), Chester Johnson (1796-1863), a fancy chair manufacturer who worked in Albany, New York, and New York City. Few extant pieces are attributed to him, and it appears that the only products bearing Johnson’s label were the patented settees he produced in the 1820s and 1830s.(1)

Albany directories list Johnson as a city resident in 1819, 1820, and 1826. His Albany business, located on State Street, is listed only in 1819, at which time Johnson was in partnership with an individual named Bates.(2) According to Bates and Johnson’s 1819 trade card, the firm offered “Fancy, Windsor & Common chairs, viz. Rose Wood, Curled Maple & Painted Chairs & Settees” as well as painted signs and did general furniture repairing.(3) An 1819 advertisement in the Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette declared that the partners “have taken pains to obtain some of the best workmen in the city of New-York—Also, the modern patterns of Chairs in Europe and New-York.”(4)

Johnson relocated to New York City between 1820 and 1826. From 1827 through 1854 Johnson appears in New York City directories variously as a “cabinetmaker,” a maker of “sofa bedsteads,” or a “sofa-bed maker.” He continued to promote his products in the upstate area, however, evidently making them available through a local distributor. The last line of text in his Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette advertisement of April 1827 reads, “All orders will be punctually attended at the settee factory of CORNWELL WILLIS, no. 291 North Market street, Albany."(5) Johnson’s reasons for leaving Albany after being in business for only one year and his where-abouts between 1820 and 1826 are unknown.

Although Johnson’s 1819 trade card lists “Johnson’s Patent Portable Settees, convenient for sitting or lodging for two persons,” the recorded patent date for]ohnson’s “improvement in the manufacture of sofas” is 1827, suggesting that in that year he had revised an earlier patent for a convertible settee or that he advertised the patent before it was actually granted.(6) An examination of MWPI’s Johnson-made settee and descriptions of the form in the maker’s advertisements explain how the object, with two sets of front legs, converted into a bed. Although the MWPI example has been altered and no longer opens, it is clear that originally the front seat rail and the first set of legs were meant to be pulled forward, thereby drawing out an extra section that doubled the depth of the settee so it could be used as a bed. Johnson explained that a settee “made with a bottom of 19-inches in width, by the gearing attached to it, will admit of a bed four feet in width.”(7) Johnson also noted that the extended settee was “calculated to contain bed and bedding.(8)

In 1829 Johnson advertised the “sofa and settee bedstead” as “economy and luxury combined.” He explained that his product “is constructed on principles peculiar to itself: with the size, strength, and convenience of the ordinary four poster Bedstead, it possesses the symmetry, beauty and finish of the ornamental parlor Settee or Sofa.”(9) Johnson stated in an 1882 advertisement that there was extraordinary demand for his patented sofa bedstead and that “upwards of seven Hundred of them have been manufactured by the Patentee within a short period, their [combined] value at a fair estimate, being sixty Thousand Dollars.”(10)

Johnson made his settees to conform to the standard form and decoration of fancy chairs and other simple seating furniture (see cat. no. 14). His settees were designed essentially as elongated fancy chairs with turned legs and stiles, turned or flat crest rails, and horizontal slats. The MWPI rosewood-grained settee has turnings highlighted by painted rings and flat surfaces ornamented with well-executed, bronze-powder, naturalistic stenciling that is enhanced by black pen work.

Essay by Anna Tobin D'Ambrosio

1. All extant piece with a label identical with that on the MWPI settee is in the collection of the New York State Museum, Albany.

2. Bates's first name has not been verified, but the cooper Jeremiah Bates—the only Bates name consistently listed in the Albany directories-—is a likely partner. I am grateful to Mary Alice MacKay and Wesley G. Balla from the Albany Institute of History and Art for assisting me with this research.

3. Trade card, Joseph Downs Collection of Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del. Also cited in Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette, Jan. 5, 1819. In 1819 the Bates and  Johnson establishment was located at 71 State Street.

4. Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette, Jan. 5, 1819, MWPI research files.

5. Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette, Apr. 6, 1827, MWPI research files.

6. List of Patents Granted by the United States from April 10, 1790 to December 31, 1836 (Washington, D.C.: The Commissioner of Patents, 1872), p. 331, lists Johnson’s patent as 1827. The notation also cites Johnson as residing in Albany. One explanation is that Johnson may have applied for the patent as early as 1819 while residing in Albany but was not granted the patent until 1827.

7. Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette, Apr. 6, 1827, MWPI research files.

8. Albany Argus and Daily City Gazette, Apr. 6, 1827, MWPI research files.

9. American Masonick Record and Albany Literary Journal, 1829, MWPI research files.

10. New York Traveller and Spirit of the Times, Dec. 8, 1832, p. 3.