Beginning as a bumble country piece, a more comfortable cousin of the
Windsor chair, the smoker's bow evolved a variety of styles in the 19th century.
The smoker's bow is a simpler, stockier version of the Windsor chair which first appeared in the 1820s. It lacked the high back seen on most Windsor chairs and had a sturdier, heavier appearance.
Its main feature was the hoop or bow a single piece of square-sectioned wood that was steamed and curved to make the back rail and the arms. A fairly short, flat cresting rail was usually fitted to the top of the bow to give extra support for the sitter's back.
Victorian smokers' bows had comfortably wide seats supported on four slightly splayed legs. The legs were usually turned, as were the stretchers which sometimes strengthened them. The bows were supported by spindles, usually eight, dowelled into the seat of the chair.
In its original form, the smoker's bow was never seen in smart or elegant surroundings, but it was the last word in comfort in pubs and inns, servants' quarters, farmhouses and cottage kitchens.
The sweeping armrests were just the right height for a pipeman's elbow, hence its name.
A more gentrified, upholstered version of the smoker's bow did find its way into the drawing rooms of polite society. At first, upholstery was added to the back bow only, though a few chairs were made with a combination of fully upholstered seats and plain wooden bows.
By mid-century, both seat and back were upholstered in horsehair, usually covered with velvet or leather.
Upholstered bows tended to be made of oak, walnut or mahogany, rather than the 'country' woods of the basic chairs, and took on a different shape.
Their legs were shorter and sturdier, with no stretchers, and were invariably set with castors. The number of spindles was reduced to four, or sometimes fewer, hut they were much thicker.
The upholstered bow could also be found in public rooms. Although it had been transformed from a kitchen chair into an armchair for lounging, it was still strong
and serviceable, and mass-produced versions were relatively cheap.
It made ideal seating for the more informal rooms of various institutions, and its ample comforts assured it a welcome in the smoking rooms of gentlemen's clubs.
Wooden smoker's bow chairs are still made today in a traditional style. Upholstered versions are not. Because of their relatively low price, they aren't faked or
Upmarket smokers' bows are usually the province of antique furniture dealers and leading auction houses, but more basic chairs may be offered for sale at smaller auctions and house sales, as well as in second-hand furniture shops.
Most smokers' bows were made in mixed woods; elm for the seat, birch, beech, ash or fruitwood for the legs and spindles, and yew for the bow and cresting rail.
Completed chairs were stained for a uniform finish. Some chairs were made in a single wood. Yew is the most valued today, followed by fruitwood. Beech, too, his a very attractive, treacly tone, especially when it is polished.
Wooden smokers' bows should be in sound condition - loose and broken pieces can be replaced, but it's more difficult than it looks with a good patina. Hold any chair you're thinking of buying by the arms, push down gently and rock it to and fro. There shouldn't be much play in the arms and legs.
BUTTONS AND BOWS
The most desirable upholstered smokers' bows are
those covered in leather, particularly when it has been deep-buttoned. Velvet coverings, particularly prone to wear, will probably have been replaced, lowering the value of the piece.
Generally speaking, new upholstery in a sympathetic design is better than the original in poor condition. Where the leather or fabric has split, and the stuffing is spilling out, you may have to refill it as well as re-cover it, which will be expensive.
TO RECOGNIZE & REFINISH ANTIQUES FOR PLEASURE, 4th Editionby Jacquelyn Peake