Above - Carved antique cane chair found some years ago in Rosslyn Chapel,
Midlothian. The last time I visited, this chair was no longer there. I hope it was just away
SEATING CANE - HISTORY
Although not as ancient a method of seat making as rushing, cane seating has a
long and interesting history. It probably originated in China or India where the raw
materials were easily available, and was certainly used in the far east for a long time
before its introduction into Europe.
17th CENTURY PORTUGAL
In the late 17th century the fine furniture makers of Portugal introduced cane
seating, and Catherine of Braganza, the consort of Britain's King Charles II, probably
brought cane seats to Britain. They soon became very fashionable and were
exported in large numbers to the American and other colonies.
THANKS TO THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON
At first French and Dutch weavers went to London but soon the locals picked up the
and a thriving industry grew up. After the great fire of London in 1666 these chairs
as houses were rebuilt bigger and roomier than before, requiring more delicate and
AND THEN THE UPHOLSTERERS TRIED TO BAN THEM
In time the early simple, comfortable chairs gave way to elaborately decorated and
carved confections, stiff and uncomfortable to sit on, but doubtless most impressive
Upholsterers worried about going out of business as the popularity of cane seating
they unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament to ban the import and manufacture of cane
TALL & SILLY SEATS
All fashions have their limits, and by the end of the century, by which time cane seat
backs had reached nearly 4ft (1.21m) in height above the seat, things were getting really
silly and gradually their popularity faded. They continued to be made however, and many
interesting examples can be found in antique shops and museums.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE BENTWOOD
In the mid 19th century Michael Thonet (1796-1871) invented the bentwood chair
experimenting between 1830-1842: he opened a factory in Vienna under Prince
patronage. In 1851 he exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London and his bentwood
chairs really took off and were exported worldwide including the US and Australia.
of his death the factory was making 400,000 pieces per year.
VICTORIAN CHILDREN MUST NOT
Why are so many old cane chairs found today with a piece of plywood nailed over
seat? My impression had always been that people simply didn't know how to recane
them, or couldn't afford to have it done, and certainly many of these examples would
have been the result of this, but there's also the suggestion that in Victorian times it
was considered unhealthy to slouch in a chair (though can you really slouch
in a cane chair anyway?) and parents, for the ultimate benefit of their children,
covered the comfy cane seat with a hard, uncomfortable surface in order that their
offspring should grow up strong and straight and not soft.
The other, more prosaic explanation for the hard seats is that during both World
Wars it was no longer possible to import cane, which grows exclusively in the far
east. People needed their chairs, and simply did what they could to enable them to
keep using them. Whatever. Certainly there are many of these covered seats about,
and it's not too hard for us to restore them.
MACHINE MADE CANE
In the 1850s an American, Cyrus Wakefield, experimented with centre cane, which had been
thrown away until then, and perfected a method of making furniture with it. Another
American, Gardiner A. Watkins, was probably responsible for the invention of the machine
for weaving cane into panels. This is also sometimes known as 'rattan webbing' and appears
under this name in our mail order section.
In Germany in 1925 Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breur designed tubular steel chairs with
machine-made cane seats, and these have over the years become a design classic. In the
1960s and 70s Habitat marketed their own version of the Bauhaus chair, and many people
now have a set of these elegant tubular steel, caned chairs in their homes. Since the seats
and backs are fixed to the framework with screws, it's easy enough to remove them, so
they can be sent to us in the post for restoration work.
REVIVAL OF INTEREST
During World War II no cane could be imported from the far east and supplies dried up, and
only since the 1950s has interest in cane seating been revived. Today these chairs are as
popular as they have ever been - robust, attractive, comfortable without being too soft,
lightweight and versatile - there's nothing quite like a cane chair!
VISIT OUR ONLINE MUSEUM
I take a few photos of most of the chairs that come and go through our workshop, and
some of the more interesting ones can be seen in our MUSEUM OF INTERESTING SEATS.