The Life Story of a Simple Old Chair


Column by Douglas Herman.

Exclusive to STR

The fine craftsmen of High Wycombe, in northern England, who made me in 1880 are no longer of this world but of the next. Their young flesh and strong muscles, sinew and tendons turned the pieces, assembled the shaped elm seat to the chair legs, pressed the beech wood rods and rails to the fine figured armrests you see. And then they took their evenings in a pub, seated on Windsor chairs very similar to this one you see. Soon after, I found myself in Yorkshire, comforting young lads like the ones who constructed me, as they tippled a pint or two of beer from my comfortable seat.

The publican of the local Lion’s Head kept a tidy but boisterous tavern. No brawls or malicious drunks. Families quite often on weekends. Little tots that could hardly crawl up into my seat, to creaking old fellows who claimed to recall the golden age of the British empire before it lost its colony of thirteen ragtag states later called America. None of them really could, but they thought they did after four or five glasses of stout.

Sometime in the past century I was packed aboard a steamer with many other well-built Windsor chairs, mahogany tables, cedar chests and nicer walnut sideboards and armoires, bound for a merchant in New Haven, Connecticut. Henry Whiting opened a store called Rule Britannia and sold most of his better stuff to Anglophiles, British ex-pats and those who traced their lineage back beyond the Tudors but lived now in America.

For years I served in one of the finer clubs in Boston. Some of the younger gentlemen, scarcely out of prep school, became caught up in the chauvinistic spirit of 1914. They drank and smoked and debated the merits of military service while seated on Windsor chairs like me. How the fires burned in their hearts! Rising in passion from my British hardwoods, they swore to sweep the bloody Hun from Belgium, all the way back to Berlin. Then they toasted each other, emotions spilling like beer, spilling on each other before spilling blood across Europe. From my polished seat to the bloody trenches of France and Belgium they went. How often I wanted to clasp my armrests to their young, tumultuous breasts, to slow or stop them, but could not. So many of them did not return.

Years passed and The Great War ended and soon gave way to The Great Depression. Tired men, many of them once prosperous businessmen, sipped their solitary drinks and sighed from my seat, trying to devise ways to reverse the fall of their once-great fortunes. The best of men - and worst - sat here above me, as that private club sold me to a public tavern soon after another tragic world war ended, some 60 years ago.

Saints and sinners, lovers and fighters, drinkers and gamblers, many of them former servicemen, pondered their new life from my scooped seat. Lonely men composed epic poems in their heads, poems that no one ever read. Dreamers dreamt, seducers squirmed and schemed with desire on my hard seat. Workmen rested their aching joints and tired muscles in my comforting embrace. Long before smoke-free bars, thousands of smokers enjoyed a pipe, a cigarette or cigar in a chair like me called a smokers bow.

Fingernails dug into my shellacked and oiled woods. Plans were made, goals were set, golden dreams were dreamt and generations came and went for the next 50 or 60 years. Few are those who realize that the common wooden chair is a brief respite, an oasis, a crossroads of fleeting comfort between the crib and the coffin. Whether the restless soul was once defeated or victorious, in war or peace, we do not judge. Our woods warm to the just and unjust alike.

By the middle of the 20th Century, I was still a fixture in an Irish-style pub in South Boston that prided itself on Old World authenticity. From cards to darts, to this new invention called television, endless beers were spilled in my lap and theirs in celebration. Whenever the Celtics or Red Sox or Bruins won a championship, the riotous sound and clatter of chair legs took a toll on us all, humans and furniture alike.

Sometimes celebrants will fight when they most want to embrace in friendship. But something keeps them from that kindred spirit. All over the world, men are brothers, and I must have felt the fingers of 20 different nationalities, clasping the ends of my curved arms. My cellulose could feel the unspoken empathy in some, could sense the rage in others, could detect the simmering anger in a few others. Yet all men were brothers to me and I judged them not. Chairs are never seats of judgement. We are, at best, places for men to sort out their emotions and become better men.

When that tavern closed, an auctioneer sent a roomful of us to a warehouse, where a restorer saw a few of us, worthy of repair. He lovingly restored me to my former utility and beauty. An antiques dealer acquired me, with a fine young daughter named Jen. She found me comforting and couldn’t fathom why, especially with so many other modern, upholstered chairs for her to choose from. Until one day Jen sat with me, took my arms in her lovely little hands and closed her mind to the modern world for a moment. Then she opened her inner eye and allowed her thoughts to flow. A young woman with a gift, a sixth sense that many have but very few have developed, she saw my entire history from beginning to end, just as you see it now.

No, I never did console a Civil War widow or comfort a Wall Street broker pondering whether to jump just after the Crash of 1929. But I comforted many a middle-aged and older veteran, sitting here on my seat, slowing sipping a drink alone, wondering and remembering, questioning and praying that henceforth, in the years left to them, they would never forget their lost friends, fallen comrades and perhaps their victims too, as tears sometimes spilled silently from their eyes, spilling memories over my armrests, as I wished to wrap my golden old arms around all of these wounded warriors. 

The above was written as a chapter of an unpublished novel. A few weeks after writing this chapter, I passed a dumpster, filled to the brim, near my condo in Arizona. Atop the pile destined for the landfill reposed three old chairs. ALL were intact and nearly 100 years old. Why anyone tossed them atop the pile I cannot say. After I rescued them, I asked my antique restorer friend Steve Whiting to identify the trio of chairs you see. He said the darkest of the three, the one in the middle, was a Windsor chair, from Thames Valley in England. True story.
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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @


Alex R. Knight III's picture

Doug:  My late mother -- who just passed in April of this year -- was a lifelong antiques dealer, and would've related instantly to this piece.  Many were the times both of us, or just she alone, rummaged through "trash" left by the roadside that was in actuality valuable history.  Reflect for a moment, sadly, on how much of this stuff is never rescued, and ends up being destroyed forever in dump fires and landfills.
Beyond that, finish this novel!  Jen's ability reminds me of Stephen King's The Dead Zone.  Great stuff!  :-) 

Jim Davies's picture

Nice tale, Doug. Small correction: High Wycombe is not in "Northern England." It's in the "home counties" - those close to London - about 30 miles NW of the city center. Or centre.
The chair may have been bought first in Yorkshire, but if so would have had quite a trip, for that county is indeed in the North of the country.

Douglas Herman's picture

Thank you Alex. Loved hearing about your treasure hunts. I found the smokers bow, or captains chair as we Americans often call it, at a thrift store years ago. The trio of others surprised me, an amateur sleuth, as to the Who and Why and How. I'm probably the old veteran in the chairs now but I try not to spill my beer. 

Douglas Herman's picture

Jim, You are so right that sometimes I wonder about myself. Not northern England at all, but simply north of London. But then, while living in southern California years ago, as a transplanted Mid Westerner, I found it curious that local Los Angelenos called Anywhere north of Santa Barbara or Monterey, "Northern" California. To me, the northern part of that state started hundreds of miles north, or at least north of San Francisco Bay, in Marin County.

Jim Davies's picture

It is, indeed, quite odd!  New Yorkers call Chicago the "North West", and there's even an airline named that way, which nonetheless flies North East among other directions. And Maine is often called "Down East", even though if one holds the map in the conventional way it's definitely "up". And did you, whilst dwelling in the City of Angels, refer to yourself as a "Midwesterner" while facing East?
Perhaps there's a conspiracy at work, to confuse us all.

Douglas Herman's picture

Jimbo -  Yes Indeedy! And WHY, pray tell, as we Brits would say, is the so-called "Far East" actually WEST?  I can look out over the Pacific Ocean and see Japan (on a map or Google Earth) and it sort of looks way west.
Must be some kind of programming going on as you have surmised.

Jim Davies's picture

Well, that may not be too hard. The Far East was East because to reach it Westwards involved braving the storms of Cape Horn, whereas to go East meant only to round the Cape of Good Hope. Clearly, good hope beats horns any day - no dilemmas - and the North West Passage (it lies to your North East) was not yet open, due to Global Warming not having then been invented. As for the Panama Canal, the idea that some Damn Yankee should speak softly, carry a big stick and cause it to be dug was just the stuff of fairy tales. What was a Yankee, anyway?

Douglas Herman's picture

Jim - Your droll sense of humor brings a smile to my face. Here in the dreary West Coast today it's raining from northern California down here to LA.  "Global Warming not having then been invented?" Think I'll steal that quote and claim it as my own. 
Riddle: Why are climate change and teenagers exactly alike? Because they're always changing and always unpredictable.