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Side Chair

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Side Chair

Attributed to: Kilborn Whitman & Company (active Boston, Massachusetts, 1876-1896)

Date: c. 1880
Medium: Beech, birch, cherry, gilding, and replacement uphostery
Overall: 32 × 16 7/8 × 18in. (81.3 × 42.9 × 45.7cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Thomas G. Schafer
Object number: 87.1
Label Text
Stylistically this chair displays an eclectic mixture of influences: the baluster-like front legs are of Northern Renaissance inspiration; the use of geometric and floriform incising and the curved brackets below the seat rail and the arcade were viewed, in the 1880s, as Modern Gothic; and the stylized leaves and flowers featured on the carved crest panel have Oriental precedents. The result is a fusion of charm, delicacy, and strength appropriate to the object's function as an easily movable "accent" in the parlor, boudoir, or bedroom. The gilded finish on the chair, more expensive than a "natural" or an ebonized surface, implies the formality of a parlor setting.

Elements of the chair's earlier upholstery survived, but a suitable reproduction fabric in imitation of the original could not be located. Instead, a remnant of an 1880s mantle scarf or runner was salvaged and used to cover the seat, keeping what survived of the original upholstery below. By securing springs and foundation fabrics to a piece of Plexiglas rather than the seat frame (as seen in the mirror), stress on the chair frame is alleviated.

Text Entries
By 1880 the longtime hegemony of certain northeastern cities in the American furniture trade was gradually diminishing.  Nevertheless, Boston still ranked first in labor productivity and fifth-behind New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati in aggregate production.(1) At this time there were more than a hundred Boston furniture firms. One of the firms that successfully performed both manufacturing and selling (wholesale and retail), albeit on a moderate scale, was Kilborn Whitman & Company.(2) All but forgotten today, in its own era Whitman-produced merchandise appears to have been widely available.(3) The firm's documented oeuvre was above average in aesth etic conception and craftsmanship, and in some cases, such as the chair in the MWPI collection, the results were exceptional.''(4)

Kilborn Whitman & Company, established in 1876, was managed throughout its twenty-year existence by Kilborn Whitman. The business occupied a succession of addresses on Canal and Merrimac Streets in Boston's North End, the site of many similar operations.(5) Before creating the firm, Whitman had worked for about a decade with Beal & Hooper (active 1850-76), a prestigious local decorating and furniture-making concern and for almost four years with Arthur W. Palmer in the wholesale trade.(6) In October 1876 Whitman and Charles A. Jones organized Kilborn Whitman & Company using the former Palmer & Whitman facilities.(7) The inclusion of several Whitman items in J. Wayland Kimball's Book of Designs: Furniture and Drapery (1876), an illustrated compendium of work from "Leading Manufacturers" in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, was an auspicious beginning for the young company.(8)

From the outset Whitman offered catalogues to whole­sale customers.(9)  About 1880 the firm issued a thin but handsome catalogue containing 145 photolithographic images of sofas, chairs, lounges, stools, tables, and stands.(10)  The last page of this work pictures an un-upholstered seat frame that exactly matches the MWPI chair.

Stylistically the MWPI chair displays an eclectic mixture of influences that places it firmly in the Eastlake "art furniture" genre. The overall form is simple and traditional. The baluster-like front legs, somewhat mirrored in the "miniature arcade" on the back, are of Northern Renaissance inspiration. The use of geometric and floriform incising and the curved brackets below the seat rail and the arcade were viewed, in the 1880s, as modern Gothic. The stylized leaves and flowers featured on the carved crest panel have Oriental precedents.(11) Upon analysis, each of these motifs has a raison d'etre, and the end result is a fusion of charm, delicacy, and strength, perfectly appropriate to  the object's function as an easily movable "accent" in the parlor, boudoir, or bedroom. The gilded finish on the MWPI chair, more expensive than a "natural" or an ebonized surface, implies the formality of a parlor setting.(12)



The design sources for the MWPI chair are speculative. Similarities of form and detail can be found in images of furniture appearing in the 1870s trade catalogues of the London furniture makers Collinon & Lock, James Shoolbred & Company, and William Watt, and in works describing the international exhibitions held in London (1862) , Paris (1867 and 1878), and Philadelphia (1876).(13) The products of trendsetting, contemporary New York City firms such as Herter Brothers, Pottier & Stymus, and Kimbel & Cabus also might have provided inspiration.(14)  And widely circulated "good taste" manuals-Charles Locke Eastlake 's Hints on Household Taste (1868) and Clarence Cook's House Beautiful (1877)-may have influenced the company's designs. Plate N of Eastlake's Hints, for example, pictures a carved ebony chair similar to the Whitman design.(15)  Regardless of its migins , the MWPI chair is an imaginative work whose inherent qualities easily express Eastlake 's tenets of simplicity witl1out "extravagant contour or unnecessary curves" and simultaneously satisfy Cook 's belief th at a well-designed chair is "at the same time handsome and useful."(16)

Essay by Ed Polk Douglas

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of William C. Clendaniel, Eileen Dubrow, Richard Dubrow, Jonathan Fairbanks, Timothy Neuman, William T. Nicholas, and Gerald W.R. Ward in the preparation of this essay.


1. Edward S. Cooke Jr., "The Boston Furniture Industry in 1880," Old -Time New England 80 (1980): 84, 95.

2. Cooke, "Boston Furniture Industry," p. 96. Cooke has included Kilborn Whitman & Company in his list of "Furniture Firms Categorized by Product" but refers to it as "Kilborn, Whitman & Company." Cooke cited Kilborn Whitman & Co. as a maker of first-class furniture when the company was actually a "specialty firm."

3. Documentation in the MWPI research file demonstrates either the sale or use of Whitman merchandise in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Texas.

4. For illustrations of Whitman merchandise, see Eileen Dubrow and Richard Dubrow, Furniture Made in America, 1875-1905 (Exton, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1982), pp. 56-58, 65, 66, 79. Items on p. 245 are incorrectly labeled Kilborn Whitman & Company.

5. See Boston Almanac and Business Directory (Boston: various publishers, 1876-96), and Massachusetts Vol. 83, p. 176, R.G. Dun & Co. Collection, Baker Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration, Boston, Mass., for the various sites of the firm between 1876 and 1896.

6. Palmer was a former sales representative of Palmer Embury & Company, New York, N.Y., active 1870 to 1876. See New York Vol. 434, p. 100-A-50; and Vol. 436, pp. 230 and 300, R. G. Dun & Co. Collection. For Beal & Hooper, see Massachusetts Vol. 69, pp. 83A, 527, 5990, 599P, R.G. Dun & Co. Collection. For Palmer & Whitman, see Massachusetts Vol. 83, pp. 176-77, R.G. Dun & Co. Collection, and Boston Almanac and Business Directory, 1871-76. Palmer & Whitman's origins were modest, but the firm had warerooms initially at 13 Charlestown Street (and later at 34 Canal Street) and a factory in Chelsea, Mass., and specialized in parlor furniture, desks, and bookcases.  See Massachusetts Vol. 83, pp. 176-77, R.G. Dun & Co. Collection, and Boston Almanac and Business Directory, 1876, p. 1279.

7. Charles A. Jones had been the accountant for Palmer & Whitman. See Massachusetts Vol. 83, pp. 176-77, R. G. Dun & Co. Collection, and Boston Almanac and Business Directory, 1876, p. 1279.

8. Printed Book and Periodical Collection. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Winterthur, Del. Items in the Renaissance revival style from Kilborn Whitman & Company appear in plates 4 and 8.

9. At the bottom of his full -page advertisement (unnumbered) in Kimball's Book of Designs, Whitman urged potential clients to "Send for Catalogue."

10. Kilborn Whitman & Co., Parlor Furniture Manufacturers, 34 Canal Street, Boston, Mass., U.S.A. (Boston: by the author, n.d. [ca. 1880]). A copy of this catalogue survives in a private collection; reconfigured selections from it appear in Dubrow and Dubrow, Furniture Made in America, pp. 57, 58, 66. The MWPl chair form is no. 5 at the bottom of p. 58. While the catalogue has no printed date, authors Dubrow and Dubrow speculate that it was published May 1, 1880 (p. 314).

11. For information on the decoration of panels on more expensive contemporary   furniture, see Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Catherine Hoover Voorsanger et al., Herter Brothers Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1994), p. 222.

12. "The gilded surface is revealed under ultraviolet light as a complex and detailed surface treatment. The surface appears to be oil gilt [with] a separate resin varnish coating…used over the gilding to highlight selected areas." See Williamstown Art Conservation Center "Examination Record" (1997), MWPI research files, for a more detailed analysis of the finish. For comments on the design and use of such small chairs in American interiors of the 1870s and 1880s, see Howe et al., Herter Brothers, pp. 144-45, 170-71, 175-78, 193-94, 202-3. A comprehensive study of gilded furniture in the United States has yet to appear. By the 1880s this costly mode of decoration was less expensive and thus more prevalent in middle­ class homes. Whitman offered gilded pieces from the beginning of his business: the chair from his manufactory shown in plate 4 of Kimball's Book of Designs was available at extra cost in a gilded finish.

13. For related British design, see Edward T. Joy, Pictorial Dictionary of British 19th Century Furniture Design (Woodbridge, Eng.: Antique Collectors' Club, 1977), pp. 200-203, 225-27, 245-46, 576-79, 582-83, and Jeremy Cooper, Victorian and Edwardian Deem; From the Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987), pp. 115-52. For similar objects shown at the international exhibitions, see The Art Journal, new ser. 2 (1876), 4 (1878), and 5 (1879), and Walter Smith, The Masterpieces of the Centennial Intentional Exhibition, 2, Industrial Art (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1875 [1876]).

14. See Doreen Bolger Burke, Jonathan Freedman, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen et al., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Rizzoli and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), pp. 110-75,438-40, 446-47, and Howe et al., Herter Brothers, pp. 36-77.

15. Charles L. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (London: Longmans, Green, 1868; Boston: James R. Osgood, 1872), plate IV ("Window in Dining-room, Cothele, Devon [sic]"), p. 3.'J.

16. Eastlake, Hints, pp. 162-63, and Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful: Essays on Tables, Stools and Candlesticks (New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1878), p. 76.