Noted for design rather than comfort, a trio of early chair designs is still in demand as decorative elements. Hallway, portrait and lady’s reception chairs were popularized as early as the 1700s and may have seen their peak in the Victorian period as they evolved into elaborate framework crafted from rattan and wood. From high ladder supports to balloon backs adorned with scrolls and beading, many varying styles appeared in both public spaces and private homes.
With the late-1800s merging of Heywood-Wakefield, wicker seating leaped to new levels in design along with a demand from wealthy patrons of society. Today, these chairs are reproduced to exacting proportions as both useful and display items.
Early home entries, even those among the social elite, tended to be narrower, but they did require proper styling to welcome guests. Typically, there was room for a small table that would hold a tray for calling cards as well as a hat and coat stand. At least one or two chairs would be a necessity. These hallway chairs were quite uncomfortable and not generous in their size due to space restrictions.
Guests were rarely required to wait very long before a summons to visit came from the lady or man of the house. In time, foyers became larger even in more modest homes and entry furnishings followed in scale. Benches with storage that could hold footwear became practical decorating choices. Designers soon combined hall trees and seating into a single
piece with a high back, wider cushioned benches, coat hooks and a built-in mirror.
Lady’s Reception Chairs
During the Victorian era, rules for visiting or accepting callers were quite strictly followed. Ladies would allow their visitors into a reception room while men usually escorted male friends into the library. It was the standard of this time to keep these two rooms available as public meeting areas, and guests were rarely privy to a view of private rooms.
Ladies who came calling at a convenient time would have an escort into the reception room. Here, they could sit privately for a few minutes while the lady of the house made her way from upstairs or from back rooms. Reception chairs were more feminine in styling, and they might be armless or have arms. Not quite as uncomfortable as hallway chairs, they still required a certain level of formality that would not encourage slouching or unladylike posture. Seating must also be an honest reflection of the level of wealth, and there remained a fine line between exquisite and gaudy.
Portrait chairs were perhaps the most elaborate among these early seating styles. As soon as photographers discovered the possibilities of tintype, they found clients who were eager to pose. Individuals of all ages and their families would gather, dressed in their best finery for this special occasion. Having props available as well as a background available was a popular selling point. Although these ornamental chairs were part of the sales pitch, they rarely ended up in photographs as they were buried under women’s voluminous skirts or lost among throngs of children. Most portrait chairs were armless, but some did feature framework with one arm and a wider seat, which allowed for a more glamorous pose.
In today’s traditional spaces, hallway, reception and portrait chairs are among the prettiest appointments available. While these designs are sturdy enough to use as everyday seating, they can also go on display with a favorite childhood doll or stuffed animal in residence for children’s rooms. They also are teatime favorites for corner spaces or in parlor-style nooks. Grand in concept, they will certainly draw attention wherever they go.