The Philadephia Inquirer, June 30, 1996
The U.S. House of Windsor In-depth business portrait of the Duckloe legacy and products, both attributes locally well-known and regarded.
Thomas Jefferson is said to have penned his first draft of the Declaration of Independence while sitting in a combination Windsor writing chair. Legend has it that John Quincy Adams liked the hoop-back Windsor best of all the chairs in his Massachusetts home. And when George Washington retired from the presidency in 1796, he ordered two dozen Windsors from a Philadelphia chairmaker for his expansive portico at Mount Vernon.
Through the 18thand 19th centuries, Windsor chairs were everywhere. The rich used them as outdoor furniture on porches and lawns. The not-so-rich used them indoors. Taverns ordered them by the dozen. The delicate spindle backs are visable in portraits of many an early American. And when Independence Hall was refurbished in 1778, chairmaker Francis Trumble supplied new Windsors.
The Windsor ranks as the most popular and enduring furniture design in American history. “A Windsor chair is a piece of American art,” says Frederick Duckloe Jr., a fourth generation chairmaker whose 125-year-old family business has roots that run deep in America’s history. “And besides, you can use it too.”
“Back in the early days of this country,” says Frederick Duckloe Sr., “Windsors were advertised as cheap, durable and comfortable. Our 40-year-old Windsors are selling for big bucks at auction. They’re still durable and comfortable.”
Since 1859, first in Jenkintown and later here along the Delaware River in Northampton County, the Duckloes have made a wide assortment of Windsor chairs. Using patterns first fashioned in England and refined by Philadelphia woodworkers in the early 1700s, the Duckloes continue reproducing classical Windsors in their shop, where handwork still beats high-tech.
Duckloe chairs can be found in a multitude of settings. College libraries, banks, law offices and restaurants buy them. The Smithsonian Institution sells a Duckloe exclusive in its mail-order catalogue: a copy of a late- 18th or early-19th century design found in its National Museum of American History. In 1976, the Duckloes were asked to reproduce two prized Windsors from Independence Hall for a limited Bicentennial edition. The Broadway production of 1776 used Duckloe Windsors in its sets.
What is so ageless about the Windsor design?
It’s a style that is both sturdy and graceful. The Windsor’s scooped, saddle seat makes it as comfortable as upholstered furniture. The gracefully curved back and tapered spindles give it al look of elegance, and the turned legs are angled to provide both visual attractiveness and physical stability.
Adapted from a design that originated in England near Windsor Castle, the American Windsor became a far more popular style than it antecedents. American Windsors were first called “Philadelphia chairs,” for that’s where they were first made. Also know as “stick chairs” (an allusion to the dozen or more parts assembled to create one), Windsors came in dozens of varieties: settees, rockers, writing chairs, children’s models and, of course, arm chairs.
Chairmakers up and down the East Coast developed subtle interpretations of the turned legs, scrolled arms and rail crests. There were almost as many saddle-seat patterns as there were makers. These regional distinctions readily identified the locale and occasionally the actual chairmaker.
The first Frederick Duckloe’s preoccupation was carriages. There was a heavy demand for them in the years after he opened his Jenkintown woodworking shop in 1859.
In his spare time, he would experiment with Windsor design, explains Fred Sr. his grandson. Using the same tools for the spindles that he used for wheel spokes and, bending the backs and arms just as he bent his wheel rims, the eldest Duckloe started with English designs.
explains his grandson.
Finally, sketches of the designs made by Philadelphia and New England craftsmen became his patterns, and he developed a line of “plain and fancy Windsors” that soon replaced his carriage sales.
He taught his only son woodworking. Initially, W.J. Duckloe specialized in reproducing period pieces: hand-turned four-poster beds, bureaus, chests and tables. But soon he, too, found the Windsor chair irresistible. “He used razor-sharp hand-turning tools and a lathe powered by a foot treadle to make his early chair. Every hickory spindle was hand-shaved and blocked,” Fred Sr. remembers. “In a good week, he made a halfdozen chairs.”
Fred Sr.’s own apprenticeship began while he was still in high school. “We didn’t have electricity back in those days. We had an overhead drive system for lathes, and it was my job to pedal and keep those lathes turning. I’d do it for two or three hours at a time – six days a week, too.”
In 1939, he moved the business here, bringing with him his father’s Chief Justice Windsor pattern and the skill to design his own line of chairs. Later his brothers joined him, and they formed Frederick Duckloe & Bros., Inc. a name that is retained today, although the brothers are no longer associated with the business.
Like many generations of Windsor-makers before him, Fred Sr. soon became a manager and merchant, limiting his role as craftsman to that of an overseer.
Some social historians see American manufacturing history written in the making of Windsor chairs. They were the first item ever mass-produced in American, and the manufacture of them heralded the beginning of specialization and a sharp division in the ranks of labor and management.
Because they were composed of several components, each requiring some special skill, it was no longer efficient to have a single craftsman produce a complete chair.
Instead, specialists produced identical parts, which were then assembled in factories called “chairworks” by yet more specialists. By the late 18th century, according to Charles Santore, a Windsor expert, a whole class of East Coast craftsmen specialized in a single product: making Windsor chairs.
Amid all this specialization, the master craftsmen, in an attempt to elevate their status, began functioning as managers and businessmen, no longer participation the hand-on operations. Furniture was produced in a “manufactory” rather than a small shop, according to Santore. And as competition grew, smaller ships disappeared, leaving production to increasingly larger shops, where the divisions between labor and management were defined in still bolder terms.
Fred Sr. followed that same pattern in the 20th century. He worked in his own shop, side by side with his woodworkers, until 1950, when he became a manager.
There’s no sign of Space Age technology around the Duckloe shop on a hill overlooking the main street of Portland. In fact, the Machine Age made its debut only recently.
It wasn’t until 1950 that the Duckloes began using machines in the production of their line of 50 chairs.
They started with a couple of semiautomatic types, second-hand models adapted for their needs. Those machines, still working, are now 80 years old.
The 18 craftsmen who work here cutting, scooping, turning, gluing, sanding staining and lacquering chairs turn out 70 to 80 Windsors a week; 30 to 50 percent of each one is handcrafted. It’s a far cry from the halfdozen com-backs the first Fred Duckloe made each week but only a fraction of the 3,000 to 4,000 chairs make a week in contemporary Windsor factories.
Duckloe Windsors are made in solid cherry, by popular demand, but are also fashioned in the more authentic versions that contained four different woods: poplar, hickory, maple and ash.
Today, the Duckloe woodworkers are completing an order for 400 chairs for First Boston Securities, an investment brokerage that just two years ago bought 300 Windsors for its worldwide network of offices.
Like all Windsors, the First Boston loop-backs begin with a “seat blank,” a two-inch-thick slab of tulip poplar that is scooped to from a saddle seat. “The originals were all a single board” explains Fred Jr., who is 32 and joined the family business a dozen years ago. “But you can’t get wood that wide today. Everybody uses glued seat blanks today.”
An 80-year-old machine grinds out the saddle, deeper at the back and rising gradually toward the front. “We had a new machine designed just for us a few years ago,” Duckloe explained as the sawdust flew, “but it doesn’t work as well as this old one. It went too fast and chipped out the wood. It’s over there in the corner somewhere,” he adds, gesturing to a far corner of the shop.
Hanging on the wall around this aging but effective machine is an assortment of cardboard triangles, each with a different pitch needed for drilling the various spindle and leg holes. Nearby, another woodworker stands over a back-knife lathe, watching as it shapes hickory dowels into the flexible tapered spindles that will form the back of a chair.
Fred Jr. worked here as a summer apprentice for many years and remembers with a grimace how he hated the chore of sanding the maple legs and stretchers. “Each one had to be done three times to get it to the proper condition. Boy, I hated that job. It used to put me to sleep.”
Off in another section of the plant, Donald Shook is fitting the spindles to the scooped, saddle seats with a glue the color of Russian dressing. “We tried using a glue machine for a few years,” he says, “but it just didn’t work right.”
Shook, on of the Duckloe’s oldest employees, can remember the days when the curved ash arms were steam-bent in this shop, a process now done by a Vermont wood supplier. “Shooky” Shook has been making Windsor chairs here for 36 years, and he’ll tell you with certainty that even with all the handwork, they’re all the same, to within 1/32nd of an inch.
Out in the storage room, rows and rows of Windsors await shipment: Smithsonian Windsors and several dozen pieces in the First Boston order; half-and threequarter scale children’s chairs, writing chairs, Bishop White settees, swivel chairs and the gentleman’s armchair (“old number 20,” as it’s known around here), a design that came from the original Duckloe shop in Jenkintown.
Barbara Duckloe Townsend, Fred Jr.’s sister, joined the family business more than a dozen years ago, working in the company showroom several days a week. Her 10-year-old daughter, Ashley, like generations of Duckloe children before her, comes along on Saturdays.
“She likes it here a lot,” reports her grandfather, obviously warming to the prospect that a fifth generation of Duckloes might produce Windsor chairs well into the next century. “She says she wants to work here when she grows up. That would be great.