Saturday 5 August 2023

The Folding Iron Chair Bedstead or California Chair

Iron Chair Bedstead or California Chair

In the second half of the 19th century a number of retailers offered versions of a wrought and cast iron chair that would convert to give a foot rest or to become a bed. The action was straightforward; the foot section rested on top of the seat when not in use but would unfold forward to be supported by a pair of simple, hinged legs united by a rod stretcher. To make the bed, the back is pushed forward to release a short bar to either side that hold the arms in place. The back can then be dropped to the horizontal position, also to be supported by a pair of hinged legs. To reduce the size, when not in use, the foot rest is folded to lie on top of the seat and the back is folded all the way forward to rest on the foot. The arms move with the back and so are also reduced in their height. The illustration from the Maple catalogue of the 1880s shows the chair before and after. 

Maple & Co. catalogue from 1880

Maple & Co. described the chair with a brass front leg as a ‘Black and Brass Chair Bedstead’ available in two widths, available with or without cushions and in a separate section with a turned wooden front leg as an ‘Iron Folding Chair Bedstead’. William Whitely called it a ‘Folding Iron Chair Bedstead’. Oetzmann & Co. called it a ‘Patent Iron Folding Chair Bedstead’ and offered it in 3 widths and 7 different qualities. C. & R. Light didn’t name their example but listed it in their Bedroom section. Harrod's described it in their 1895 catalogue as a Folding Chair Bedstead with cushions. Most of the large furniture retailers showed it in their domestic furniture sections, suggesting it was aimed at home use. They didn’t discount its practicalities for travel but that seemed to be secondary concern. Oetzmann did list its size and weight for rail but most of the others make no mention of its usefulness for travel. An exception was Heal and Son. Their version had plain iron legs which folded and they named it a ‘Patent Iron Chair Bedstead’. They also noted that it would fold into a space measuring 3ft by 2ft and 16 inches deep. 

Painted example with the back forming the foot

When we did our first exhibition in Sydney, Australia, Warwick Oakman who was exhibiting with us mentioned that he was going to show a California Chair. Having never heard of the type before we were intrigued to see it only to discover that it was a chair we knew very well. We had just never known it referred to by that title. Warwick’s explanation was that was the name given to it in adverts aimed at diggers heading for the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850s. The positive connection to the American Gold Rush was hoped to increase sales. We have two sales flyers by John Shepherd, a Cabin Fitter and Camp Furniture Manufacturer, dated 1880 and 1887. They both list pretty much the same articles which includes Iron Bedsteads to form a Chair and American Chairs. The first describes this form of Chair but its possible that American Chairs, given the gold rush link, is also another name for it. 
William Whitley catalogue from the 1880s.

Even though a large number of retailers sold the chair it is unusual to find a label on them. A few differences can be found to the design, mostly centred on the front legs. They were made with both cast and sheet brass, turned wood and cast iron. Some of the brass examples had a brass rail frame, much like those seen on a bed, linking them. Some had a plain wrought iron front leg similar to those used on the back. Of these some were made to fold and some were fixed. Some had a back that folded as described above with the bed resting on 4 pairs of legs when fully extended. Others were a little more complicated and have 3 pairs of legs with the back ending up as the foot section when a bed. This type typically have a ‘half back’ which stays in place when used as a bed and helps to hold the cushions in place. The chairs were commonly painted black bar the brass or wooded front foot. A few were painted like the yellow example shown. Most of the metal chair frame was made to be hidden by the cushions. This made them then, and now, the star of the show. Whatever material fitted in with the owner’s colour scheme or something more adventurous, if they were for a conservatory or garden, could be used. Oetzmann offered Chintz or Cretonne loose covers making it easy to update the chair with the latest fashion. 

The majority of these chairs were made in Britain with some believed to come from France. An American version was designed by Cavedra B. Sheldon who took out a patent for a very similar design in 1876. His chair had a few differences. The mechanism for adjusting the angle of the back was far more elaborate than the simple system used on the British chairs. Dependent on the model they offered 1 to 5 positions, whereas the Sheldon design gave over 10 and also allowed the footrest to be raised. Visually the most obvious difference to the Sheldon design is that it has caned walnut panels to the 3 sections. The European chairs have metal straps interlaced to support the cushions. Sheldon sold his patent to the A.F. Marks Chair Company Limited. They were based at several different addresses on Broadway, New York through their history. The chair seems to have been their main item and they produced it for 25 years. Examples are held by both the Met and Brooklyn Museums in New York. In Britain, an example can be seen at Tredegar House, Newport, South Wales. It belonged to the Hon. Godfrey Morgan, Captain in the 17th Lancers, and it is thought that he used it in the Crimea. 

The design was made over a relatively long period covering all of the second half of the 19th century and into the early 1900s. The use of iron meant they were relatively easy and cost effective to make which made them affordable. They were obviously a popular design given the number of manufacturers and retailers who sold them and they were very practical. They could be used for travel but seem to have been even more widely used in the home. If a soldier they were both a hard-wearing chair and bed; if used domestically they were an extra bed, a comfortable chair and could be used both inside and outside. When buying them today, you need to make sure that the condition is not an issue. You do not want one that is damaged as it won’t be as easy to restore as a wooden chair. You also want to make sure that it is not rusty because at best it will stain your cushions and at worst it won’t support them. So be careful to ensure that the condition is good. If you do own one of these chairs, I’m sure you will agree with me that they are a great design and find it as comfortable and practical as I do.