An easy chair made in Philadelphia circa 1795, in the collection of the Dietrich American Foundation, survives in extraordinary condition, retaining all of its original upholstery foundations, loose seat cushion, and close stool fittings (Fig. 1). The state of preservation of these elements is also significant. The easy chair was originally fitted with one or more loose covers but did not suffer the fate of the majority of surviving chairs of this type, which have had multiple nailed-on covers added to their frames over time. On these other chairs, nail holes from later covers obscure the original nailing evidence and often damage the wood surfaces and whatever original textiles and stuffing that may still exist on the frame. Though a few original nails from the Foundation’s chair have been dislodged and lost, not a single additional nail was ever attached to the frame. The techniques of the anonymous late-eighteenth-century upholsterer who created the elegant stuffed forms on this chair are entirely intact. There is also little wear to any of the wood elements. The surfaces of the legs have not been abraded, and the thin varnish coating may be the original. The soft pine close stool fittings show practically no wear, indicating that the chair could not have functioned as a close stool for any extensive period of time.1

Fig. 1, left: Easy chair, Philadelphia, Penn., 1790–1800. Mahogany, black cherry, chestnut, eastern white pine, maple, yellow poplar, linen, curled horsehair, and iron. H. 47, W. 32⅞, D. 29 in. The Dietrich American Foundation. The original upholstery foundation and close stool apparatus survive.  Fig. 2, right: A long seam runs from the top of the wing down to the arm scroll where four nails secure the seam in place. The linen side panel is stitched to the back panel, the inside panel of the wing and arm, and the front panel of the arm. A single nail is placed under the scroll of the arm to define the arm roll. The side panel is nailed under the side seat rail and secured with a single nail on the sides of the front and rear leg. All photography by the author

The woods used in making the neoclassical easy chair include imported mahogany for the legs and a mixture of local hard and soft woods for the frame that supports the upholstery. The back frame and blocked front seat rail are black cherry, the side and rear seat rails are chestnut, the close stool fittings and seat deck are eastern white pine, and the seat deck supports and glue blocks in the seat frame are yellow poplar. The original upholstery foundation consists of webbing strips under a coarse linen sackcloth over which curled horsehair was placed to create the voluminous stuffing on the interior surfaces of the back, wings, and single-scroll arms. The finely woven top linen is seamed and nailed to the frame. Where the linen is brought around and under the seat rails, common rose-head nails are used. Where the nails would be visible when removing the loose covers for washing and seasonal changes of material, the nails have decorative domed heads and are plated with zinc or tin to prevent corrosion.

Left: Wood strips nailed to the seat rails support the wood seat plank. A lid with a handle turned at the center fits in a chamfered hole cut in the plank. The cushion is held in place by the full stuffing of the arms. Right: The chamber pot support can be pulled out of the back of the chair through a cut made in the rear seat rail. It slides on runners nailed to the bottom seat plank.

Left: All of the iron nails used to attach the top linen that are visible when the loose cover is not in place have domed tops which are zinc or tin coated. The seat cushion is stuffed with curled horsehair. The cushion has a two-and-a-half-inch boxing and the stuffing is secured with thirteen buttons. The buttons are missing but their impressions are visible on the top and bottom of the cushion. Two rows of stitches through the edges of the cushion also help keep the stuffing in place. Right: All of the elements of the chair exhibit only minor wear or signs of use over the last two and a half centuries. The chairmaker who made the frame, interestingly, did not bother to scrape the rear legs to remove tear-out in the ribbon-stripped mahogany after the leg was planed. The wood surface has not been abraded and the lack of any finish residue on the linen where it meets the leg indicates no coatings have subsequently been applied.

Examining other chairs retaining their original upholstery foundations, conservators have noted the “tailoring of the long seams running from the tops of the wings down to and along the sides of the upper arm scrolls,”2 proving that the “linen and show covers of the outside wings and arms were not modeled to emphasize the arm scrolls.”  This tailoring technique of the long seams down the wings and around the arms is consistently observed on mid-Atlantic easy chairs that survive with original upholstery made from the 1730s to the first decade of the nineteenth century (Fig. 2). Similar treatment is evident on the wings and arms of a circa-1795 easy chair made in Philadelphia that is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; it also survives with much of its original upholstery foundation intact. The original seat cushion does not survive from The Met’s chair, but it was likely similar to the cushion on the Dietrich American Foundation’s chair. The Met’s chair has edge rolls at the edge of the front seat rail and on the plank seat surrounding the close stool lid. These edge rolls are absent on the Foundation’s chair. The cushion is held in place by the full stuffing on the inside of the arm, while a smooth, chamfered edge is the only comfort provided for use of the close stool.3

With the non-original repairs removed from the seams of the back-linen panel, conservators were able to fit a Plexiglas panel within the back frame to support the stuffing, sackcloth and webbing. The back panel is rolled up and sits in brackets attached to the Plexiglas, allowing visual access to the back framing and upholstery.

In the mid-1990s, H. Richard Dietrich Jr. was apprised of the condition of the easy chair and its significance as an object that could advance the knowledge and appreciation of early American upholstery techniques. While not an object that typically fell within his collecting purview, he purchased the easy chair for the Foundation, providing for the easy chair to be preserved and treated by expert conservators, and allowing it to be studied by current and future generations of conservators, curators, collectors, and historians of material culture.4

H. Richard Dietrich Jr. (1938–2007) was ahead of the curve in collecting upholstered objects to be preserved and studied rather than reupholstered for use. His purchases in the 1980s of the Cadwalader and Deshler family easy chairs, the subsequent conservation treatments of the chairs carried out by professional upholstery conservators, and their loan or donation to public institutions was a model for the preservation, study, and interpretation of American furniture.5

This article is the second in a series featuring the Dietrich American Foundation’s collection, with an eye toward presenting the collection’s strength in furniture. We are delighted to present these articles as a type of crowd sourcing exercise, where responses and information shared by readers can inform the research. New information gleaned will be provided over the course of the series. As is always the Foundation’s mission, we are excited to share the forthcoming findings and stories about people, place, and history that are revealed through our research. Contact information is in the author bio at the end of the article. For information about the Dietrich American Foundation, visit

1. A “close stool” is a period term used to describe a chair designed to hold a chamber pot in the seat. For a discussion of mid-Atlantic easy chairs with original upholstery foundations, see Mark Anderson and Robert F. Trent, “A Catalogue of American Easy Chairs,” in American Furniture, Luke Beckerdite, ed. (Milwaukee: Chipstone, 1993).

2. Anderson and Trent, p. 216.

3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 1993.1.

4. The easy chair was treated by conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996–97. The treatment included, among other repairs and consolidations, removing previous non-original stitched repairs and supports and stitching a dyed nylon netting to the linen cover for support.

5. H. Richard Dietrich Jr. purchased the Cadwalader family easy chair through an agent at Sotheby’s, January 1987. He gifted the chair to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001. The Deshler easy chair, with a majority of original foundation upholstery surviving, was purchased through an agent at Christie’s, June 1988. Both are discussed by Anderson and Trent, in American Furniture.

Christopher Storb  is a furniture conservator, woodworking historian, and wood artist. Please send comments and related research to, or call 610.212.5528. 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at AFA is affiliated with