The increasing pursuit of outdoor leisure in the late 19th and early 20th century led to the creation of ranges of lightweight
collapsible furniture based on military styles.
Early in the history of furniture, solidity and weight were considered to be virtues. Pieces that could be partially dismantled, folded down and carried from place to place were simply not required. The first people to discover a need for portable furniture such as this were army or navy officers who wanted some of the comforts of home when they were away campaigning.
British military men first got interested in portable furniture around 1790. At first, these campaign pieces, as they were known, were broadly similar in style to domestic furniture. They were substantially made from mahogany and other polished hardwoods and came complete with upholstery and
decorative flourishes. The difference was that they could be dismantled and packed away in boxes, then slotted or bolted together when needed.
In the 1820s, things got more functional. Metal, softwood and canvas were increasingly used in beds, chairs and tables, which tended to fold flat rather than come apart. By the end of the 19th century, hardwood and upholstery were no longer seen on campaign furniture.
By this time, too, folding furniture had been adapted for use in public buildings - X-frame chairs and tables in beech or pine were common in church halls, schools and so on and for domestic and garden use. Domestic styles were influenced by pieces of colonial leisure furniture such as the planter's chair; extensive use was made of cane, for lightness.
The deck chair was introduced in the United States in the 1870s, and imported to Europe in the 1880s as a lightweight garden piece that could be stowed away in bad weather.
The idea soon caught on. Known at first as a hammock chair, the deck chair was renamed in the Edwardian period, when it was sold as an essential item for cruising. Jaunty striped canvas was used for the seats from the start. Many deck chairs were made with arms; some boasted a sun canopy and a pull-out foot rest.
Deck chairs were too large to be taken on day trips, where small, folding wood and canvas stools continued to be the popular choice. Aficionados of such outdoor pursuits as fishing, sketching and race-going used shooting sticks, basically walking sticks with a small folding seat at the top.
Deck chairs and shooting-sticks continued to be popular after World War 1, but the majority of folding furniture since then has had frames of tubular steel rather than wood.
To most people, folding furniture means sun-loungers and deck chairs, and much
of it has been designed with leisure in mind. Earlier pieces, though, were made with war, not peace, in mind.
Though simple X-frame chairs and deckchairs in soft wood and canvas were made in huge numbers, their lightness and cheapness means that few have survived, and old ones are rarely offered for sale or collected.
Second hand 20th-century versions tend to be pretty cheap, but then again, so do new ones.
You may find more sophisticated chairs made along the same lines in superior woods such as mahogany or 'black walnut'. Most had polished frames, but throughout the 1880s they were fashionably ebonized, with decoration picked out in gold. The majority had padded arms and were upholstered, though the stuffing was thin or entirely absent.
Such furniture can be bought at auction and in antique and second-hand furniture dealers. Check the folding and unfolding action of any piece before you buy it. Make sure the piece is sturdy once set up, and that everything is present. Joints can work loose with use, and aren't always easy to repair.
Cane or canvas seats can be replaced, but the price should reflect this additional cost.
Shooting sticks tend to be more widely available. Some had a concertina-style leather or canvas seat, while bentwood examples had a circular wooden seat hinged to one side. Most, though, had a simple, winged,
open frame seat of wood or metal which became the stick's handle when closed. Try shooting sticks for strength before buying them. Better ones have a projecting ring near the base to stop them sinking into soft ground.