Old Chairs

My dining room table is ringed by mis-matched chairs. When we host a large gathering, we use two upholstered chairs, two woven cane seated chairs, and two utilitarian leather-seated chairs from an old furnished apartment. If necessary we add in some card table chairs from the basement and haul in wooden stools from the porch.

It would be hard for me to get a proper dining set, with matching chairs. Because then I would have to do something with the chairs that are there now. And especially the cane-seated chairs; we have history.

Before coming to my house, these two chairs spent two generations high in the loft of a barn in Ohio. In the back of a peaked storage area they rested for decades, suffering the dusty, hot summer air and the chill damp winters.

You see, the chairs were originally my great-grandparent’s. My mother called them her grandmother’s chairs, and I imagine her a small child sitting in one of them at her grandma’s kitchen table, shelling peas and listening to the grown-ups talk. But when her grandmother died and her house had to be emptied, the two cane-seat chairs- broken, now- came up the gravel and dirt country road to the log house my grandparents built, where my mother lived. Unusable, they were placed high in that barn loft. Unseen but never forgotten.

You can tell, my mother’s family were keepers. Probably like many farm families, useful items did not turn into trash easily. You see this kind of chair in yard sales and trash piles because the seat has been broken through. Someone stood on the chair to reach something up high and their foot went through the woven cane. When both of my grandparents had died and the great cleaning out had to be done, even the big barn and its loft, my mother brought those chairs to me.

They are simple straight-backed chairs, made from warm brown walnut. The spindles of their legs have a little turning work. There is a simple sun carved in the seatback of each, with a line of diamond and fan shapes below. These figures are not carved bas-relief, but simply gouged out with a v-shaped tool. They were never valuable, these old chairs, but I think they are lovely.

I researched how to re-cane chairs. Not for the amateur. They needed hand laced, hole-to-hole caning to recreate their beautiful pattern of a double woven grid with octagonal openings. The crafter charges by the number of holes in the frame of the seat, and after reeds are soaked in water overnight they are hand-woven so that a single hole has six lengths of reed going through it, tight and taut. The chairs also needed re-gluing, to solidify their poor dried out joints back into a sturdy whole. My mom offered to make the caning job a gift, and we found an old woman, Mrs. Yates, in a small town about an hour away. We delivered the chairs to her and after a wait of many weeks my mom and I made an excursion together to pick them up, done. Beautiful.

I was a new mom then. Now, more than thirty years later, those chairs have served my family and our friends for many, many birthdays, reunions, and holidays. Now they are rickety again. The cane seats have a little sag. When not needed, they are the ornamental chair sitting by the credenza you put your hat on, or tucked under the table at the back. When needed, I steer the skinniest diners to them. They still have a place at the table.

6 thoughts on “Old Chairs

  1. Your story is a treasure to be passed along with the chairs to the next generation that will inherit them. What a beautiful and special heirloom that I don’t think will end up back in an attic or barn loft….but thank goodness they were special enough to be stored and not trashed decades ago. This was a joy to read. 🙂

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  2. Oh, I love this so much. The idea that stories live in furniture is so true and that value isn’t always, or even importantly, about dollars and cents. Those cane chairs are like the Velveteen Rabbit. Do you know that picture book? It’s also wonderful that some older person knew how to restore the caning. Thanks for this sweet piece.

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  3. Great pair of memories! I too have some old pieces from my mother and grandmother. How awesome that you were able to have them redone so they could be used. Hope you continue to enjoy them!

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  4. Fran, what a beautiful post about this treasure. I love your story, and I love Debbie Lynn’s suggestion to pass this writing along with them to the next generation. I bet you are glad you didn’t attempt the re-caning yourself. I hope it is not becoming a lost art. Have you looked into it again lately, by chance? Lovely slice of life today!

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  5. Old chairs with such character. Think of the stories they could tell. What a treasure to have preserved them for future generations. I chuckled when I read your line about steering skinniest diners to the. I have a couple of chairs that are always reserved for the children in the group for the same reason.

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