From miniature versions of adult styles to functional high-chair designs, chairs made specially for small children are a fascinating byway in the history of furniture.
Special chairs have been made for children since at least the 16th century. The great majority of children's chairs made since that time were scaled-down copies of whatever styles were currently fashionable for adults.
Well-carved walnut children's chairs have survived from the 18th century in some numbers. This is because the hard use and constant cleaning they got made them less susceptible than other chairs of the period to woodworm, the scourge of walnut.
Later mahogany chairs, too, stood up well to the rigours of childhood use, and bentwood chairs were imported in great numbers from Austria in the second half of the 19th century. However, the majority of antique children's chairs that you're likely to find today will have been made in various country styles, often in durable scrubbed oak or beechwood, while simple chairs fashioned from plain pine, with turned legs and side rails and rush seats, have been made since the 17th century.
MUSIC AND MOVEMENT
Another, rarer form of chair made specially for children had some sort of novelty incorporated. Several of them had a musical box under the seat which played when the child sat down, while others had bells or rattles attached.
As well as the ever-popular small rocking chair, there were other seats made to lull fractious children with the delights of motion. Some Victorian chairs had bouncing seats fitted with springs; sometimes it was the child who produced the motive power, while other types needed an adult to turn a handle.
In the Edwardian period, children were increasingly given access to fashionable drawing rooms, and decorative rather than plain and functional chairs were provided for their use, including oak 'Country Chippendale' armchairs in walnut and high-backed dining chairs used in conjunction with low tables for eating.
Children who ate with their parents sat on high chairs. Plain high chairs - standard chairs but with longer legs, shorter backs, a footrest and perhaps a crossbar between the arms to prevent the child from toppling forwards were made from the 17th century on, but mechanical high chairs, which could be set in various
different positions, were a late 19th-century innovation.
There are two main reasons for collecting children's chairs. The most obvious one, of course, is so that children can use them. In this
case, your best bet is to look for country varieties, sturdily made in hardwood.
These can be very reasonably priced indeed, especially ones from the last 100 years or so, and can be found in second-hand furniture shops, small auctions and perhaps in antiques markets. They also tend to turn up at garage and house sales. As children grow up, chairs are often sold on, rather than handed down as part of an inheritance.
Children's chairs are also one of the few items of furniture small enough to display as ornaments. A group of miniature versions of fine adult chairs, or ones that have been upholstered in visually appealing fabrics, looks very well clustered in the corner of a living room. Such high-quality chairs may be found in antique furniture shops and auctions as well as second-hand dealers and house sales.
Before the introduction of the mechanical high chair, children were able to eat at the family dinner table sitting on a child's chair that was fixed to a table-like stand. When the meal was over, the chair could be unbolted and lifted down to floor level. Chairs of this kind have survived in some numbers. If you're thinking of buying one, make sure the bolts, which were usually made of brass, are secure.
It's a good general rule in buying high chairs (of any kind) in particular and children's chairs in general to check for safety before you buy. They are likely to have had some hard wear, not least from children who continued to sit on them long after they had outgrown them. Check that the joints are sound and have not been obviously repaired.
Mechanical high chairs were the height of fashion for late 19th and early 2Oth century toddlers. They could be set in various positions, either high, low or as a rocker. In the low position, the child could be trundled round the room on cast iron wheels. With the tray swung back, the child could sit at an adult table. As the tray had to be lifted before the chair could be folded away, it could not
collapse in use. The frames were made of beech or birch, which was either stained, as here, or painted white, according to the fashion of the times. The chair itself was covered with real or synthetic leather so that it could be wiped down easily.