Saving Loudoun’s History: Waterford Chairs & Furniture Preservation
The village of Waterford was originally settled in the 1730’s by Amos Janney, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, as “Janney’s Mill” due to the grist and saw mills established there. Historians credit the renaming of the town around 1780 to Thomas Moore, a prominent citizen who emigrated from Waterford, Ireland which also had a prominent Quaker community.
Waterford was designated as a National Historic Landmark 1970 due to its well-preserved 18th and 19th century architecture and landscape. The protection of this site contributes significantly to the interpretation and understanding of American history and culture, especially industry and folkways as many of the preserved buildings once housed shops and businesses. The town served as an important commercial hub for the citizens of rural Loudoun in the 18th Century as its diverse immigrant population brought with them a variety of skills and crafts.
One of the most significant and widely known products of Waterford is a distinctive chair style known appropriately as the “Waterford Chair,” known for their ladder-backs, splint-bottom seats, and acorn-shaped finials.
Image credit: Waterford Foundation
John Mount and Lewis N. Hough’s shops were known makers of this style of chair, although until fairly recently many of their products had not been properly attributed to them. Loudoun resident Dr. Fred D. Johnson, Jr. committed himself to finding the story behind his growing collection of Waterford chairs. Johnson contributed significantly to local knowledge with his book “Nineteenth Century Loudoun County, Virginia, Chair Manufacturing.” Around the early 1990’s, Johnson began affixing labels to chairs to identify them as historic Waterford chairs, infer their manufacturer, and estimate their era of creation. Ever passionate about sharing this history with the community, Johnson generously donated a portion of his collection to the Loudoun Museum for interpretation and preservation in addition to examining other Waterford chairs in the museum’s collection.
Images: Multiple examples of Waterford chairs in the Loudoun Museum collection, their splint-bottom seats, and their labels from Dr. Fred D. Johnson, Jr.
John Mount (1799-1876) and his son William T. Mount (1829-?) were prominent furniture makers in Waterford for over many years. John Mount was likely the originator of the Waterford chair, as it was previously referred to as the Mount chair. His attention to detail and stylistic consistency are hallmarks of his work; the legs on all his chairs are turned perfectly to the same diameter and the acorn finials are nearly identical. His son, William, heavily adopted the style of his father’s work but his pieces can be distinguished by some notable differences, such as the shape of the acorn finials, but also generally by his less consistent style and handiwork.
In 1882, William Mount sold his shop to his competitor Lewis N. Hough (1829-1900). Like Mount, Hough made not only chairs but wardrobes, tables, cabinets, and even coffins. Stylistically, Hough chairs are still considered Waterford chairs but can be distinguished by their flat cap finials and a more gradual “waist” where the back of the chair meets the seat. Recognizing these differences is important for historic research considering Hough apparently did not label his chairs as coming from his shop. Hough’s son, Arthur, would later take over the business but over time transitioned into the coffin making and undertaking portion of the business, becoming a full-time undertaker by the mid-1890’s.
Image credit: Waterford Foundation
John Mount’s high quality, but not highly stylized chairs were sturdy, utilitarian, and attractive. This made them very desirable, but they were primarily functional objects- resulting in many surviving examples being well-worn. Museum’s missions to preserve objects in perpetuity means that we must do all we can to stabilize objects and store them appropriately to minimize deterioration, no matter what condition they arrive to the museum in.
Furniture is a difficult category of objects for museum preservation for multiple reasons. Pieces of furniture are often large, heavy, and unusually shaped, making them difficult to put in storage or to move for display in exhibitions. Especially the case for historic furniture, these objects are primarily made of wood which is sensitive to humidity. The fact that furniture is typically made of multiple pieces of wood joined together further exacerbates this sensitivity along with wood’s anisotropic properties. This means that the strength of a piece of wood depends on how the wood is cut and oriented in relation to its natural grain. Basically, humidity causes wood to expand and contract- if the wood is weakened by the way it is cut, or it is joined to another piece that restricts this movement, damage is more likely to occur.
Finally, the complex nature of furniture makes it more unstable. Multiple material types including wood, metal, fabric, and more recently plastics, can interact with each other chemically and speed up deterioration. Adhesives, varnishes, waxes, oils, paints, and other materials involved in construction or decoration can all contribute to the vulnerability of the object.
Furniture Preservation for Home Reference:
-Having clean, dry hands when handling objects minimizes damage to the finish on the wood. (We use nitrile gloves when handling furniture in the museum collection.)
-Examine the object before touching it- are there any loose pieces? Splintered wood that could catch on something? Chipping paint or finish? If so, handle and clean the object carefully so you don’t make existing damage worse.
-If moving furniture, lift it by the strongest structural points. Lifting by the back or arms of a chair, for example, can cause them to loosen or detach- lift a chair by the seat.
-If the furniture is heavy or oddly shaped, use multiple people (or a padded cart) to move the object to avoid dropping it or bumping into things that can damage it.
-Know where you are going and that the path is clear before moving large/heavy objects.
-If the furniture and finish is stable, cleaning can be limited to regular dusting with a soft cloth or brush. Avoid feather dusters which can scratch or anything that leaves behind small fibers.
-If more cleaning is required, diluted, mild detergent and water can be used to lightly clean the surface with a soft, clean cloth. Regularly turn/change the cloth as it dirties. Cotton swabs can be used to clean detail work or small spaces.
-Go over the piece a second time with another clean cloth lightly damp with only water.
-Do not over saturate the wood surface with water as this can damage the finish.
-Avoid strong solvents, abrasives (such as steel wool), and commercial silicon-based polishes.
-Maintain a stable humidity around 50%. The exact percentage of the relative humidity of the room matters less than avoiding extremes or fluctuations. Avoid attics, basements, garages, and other storage spaces that are not climate controlled.
-Keep away from direct dry, forced air such as heating vents in your home.
-To preserve color and finish, keep out of direct sunlight. Consider using ultraviolet filters on windows to minimize damage over time.
For heavily damaged, dirty, or deteriorated pieces, consider consulting a professional for cleaning, repairs, etc. to avoid damaging the object.
Whether you have an extensive Waterford chair collection in your home, a family heirloom china cabinet, or just want to make sure that your household furniture lasts a little longer- you can apply simple museum preservation techniques to extend the life of your objects.