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Marshall McGurk, Elm House Farm, Crosby, MARYPORT, Cumbria, CA15 6SH. Tel: 01900 813200   

The Common Bulrush, Scirpus Lacustris

Above - the common bulrush Scirpus lacustris

Partly Rushed Chair

Above - Chair in the middle of being re-rushed, showing the underlying structure. (Click to see larger photo.)

RUSHES FOR SEATING - the background

Pictured left is the common bulrush, Scirpus Lacustris commonly used in the UK and Europe for chair seating. Materials used for this purpose vary from country to country, and the issue can be confused because the generic term, 'rushes' is often used for completely different seating materials! In the US, for example, rush seating is commonly done with the leaves of the Cattail plant, but most American seat weavers refer to their material as 'rush'.


The origins of rush seating are lost in the mists of ancient history. Certainly the use of rushes goes back at least to the 4th millennium BC: there's evidence of rush work from excavations at Ur in southern Iraq. In ancient Egypt, about 3,500 years ago, throne-chairs with seats of plaited reeds or rushes were used.


Interestingly, the basket that the baby Moses was hidden in was not made of rushes but probably of Papyrus antiquorum. Paintings of this incident confuse things even further by showing the great reed mace rather than the true bulrush, Scirpus lacustris.


Evidence of rush seating turns up throughout history. The Vikings almost certainly used it, and in mediaeval Italy simple rush-seated ladderback chairs were commonly used. Strangely, considering that the best rushes grow in England, there's no direct evidence of rush-seating in Britain before the 17th century, though it's quite likely it was used before this.


During the middle ages in the Low Countries and Spain rush seats were used, as can be seen in the painting by Nicolaes Verkuje (1673-1746) The Tea Party.


Various house inventories included rush seats: 1708, Robert Hilliard of Writtle, Essex had '5 chairs rush ones'; 1705, a blacksmith's house had 'an oval gateleg table and 6 rush chairs to set around it'. Sheraton, the great furniture maker, described 'small painted chairs with rush bottoms'.

Big Low Rush Carver Chair

Above - Big low-seated rush chair with arms. (Click to see bigger photo.)

Old Church Chairs - Complete With Hymn Book Rests - Seated In Rush

Above - 2 old church chairs seated in rush. Note the hymn book racks at the back. (Click to see bigger photo.)


After about 1720 rush seats became unfashionable as upholstery gained prominence, but by the middle of the next century William Morris (1834-1896), founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement helped repopularise them. At this time there was a yearning amongst city folk for a more rustic way of life and rush seats seemed to typify this daydream.

Arts And
Crafts Movement Stool Seated In Rush

Above - Unusual Arts & Crafts Movement stool seated in natural rush. (Click for bigger pic.)


Rush seaters were known as 'bottomers' or 'matters' and they often suffered chest problems, known as 'matter's chest' due to inhaling dust & mildew from badly stored rushes. This danger is still amongst us, and it's always safer to strip off old chairs outside - you never know what nasties are lurking inside the weave. We are also prone to other physical side-effects, such as backache, sore fingers and various repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome - it's not a job for the faint-hearted!


Perhaps Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream) was a 'bottomer' - a rush seater - rather than a loom weaver as is commonly supposed?