Grab a reader, take a seat, and lets explore the Delaware Chair Company.
The Delaware Chair Company was an international award winning manufacturer of chairs, some of which found their way to the White House. Ranging from institutional chairs for firehouses and schools including Ohio Wesleyan University, to more plush versions for the nation’s capitol and such places as the Great Southern Hotel and the Neil House, the chairs were eventually sold around the world.
Known for their unique style of caned seating, they won several awards, including a Silver Medal, at the Ohio State Fair in 1871 and 1872. They received a 1st Grand Prize medal and diploma for the “utility, strength, comfort and cheapness” of these chairs at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. The company would eventually make over 100 different patterns of chairs, but it was most known for pioneering the double cane seats. These specific chairs became known as “The Delaware Chair.”
The original entrepreneur was John G. Strain. As a single chair maker, he crafted “splint bottom” chairs by hand and sold them out of the back of a wagon. He sensed a demand for his product and was able to convince some local businessmen to work with him in order to produce the chairs on a larger scale. In 1870, the partnership was created with Thomas E. Powell, Charles W. Clippinger, and Robert G. Lybrand.
Thomas E. Powell, an 1863 graduate of Ohio Wesleyan, had an extensive career as a lawyer and a businessman. Like his father before him, Thomas W. Powell, he was well known in the community. The elder Powell was the namesake for the village of Powell and also helped build the manufacturing plant which would later become home to the chair factory.
Robert G. Lybrand was a Civil War veteran who came home from the war to join his father, Archibald Sr., in the stove business. Lybrand soon left the family business for the chair venture and took over management of factory operations from Strain.
Charles Clippinger sold out to Samuel Lybrand in 1871 and Samuel became the company’s first president. Archibald Lybrand, Jr. was a Civil War captain and a lawyer who only practiced law for a few years before joining his brothers Robert and Samuel at the chair factory. Later he would return to the business of law and become a U.S. Congressman in 1896.
When the Delaware Chair Company started in 1870, it was on the west side of the Olentangy River. Located at the corner of East Winter and Henry streets, the business began in a two story frame building located where the Delaware County Library is today. They had 10 employees and a payroll of $200 a month. Power was provided by the planing mill owned by Clippinger, and the company used lumber cut out of Delaware County forests. Their motto was “as sound as the oak.”
The great Chicago Fire of 1871 created a huge demand for furniture and contributed to the rapid growth of the Delaware Chair Company. In 1871, Strain applied for and received a patent on one of the chair designs. Patent number 5325 specified the “distinctive character of my new design.” By 1872, the company was making approximately 40,000 chairs each year. The 1873 catalog included 28 different styles of chairs.
In the 1870s, three additions were made to the building and they converted to steam power. By 1880 the company needed more space to operate and looked to the east side of the river. They had 150 people on the payroll at that point. The Delaware Manufacturing Company on Flax Street had gone belly up in 1873. That property was perfect for the booming chair business, and they moved across the Olentangy to eight acres where they could spread out in several buildings. By the time they were situated on Flax Street, they were making a hundred different kinds of chairs.
An 1879 Delaware Gazette article highlighted the #50 Saratoga Chair, made of cherry and walnut. These chairs were used on many of the director’s cars on passenger trains. The article also reported that a large order of chairs was sent to the White House.
When the company incorporated with $150,000 in stock in 1885, Powell and the three Lybrand brothers were listed as the company officers. The General Business Review of Delaware County for 1889 reported that “the phenomenal growth and development of this plant has not its equal in the country.” The same publication spoke highly of the Lybrand brothers, saying that they were progressive businessmen.
By 1889 the labor force averaged about 200 people, including some workers, mostly women, who caned chairs from their homes. Women who caned chairs made about 12 to 15 cents per chair, and at the most could cane six chairs in one day.
The chair factory was one of many Delaware businesses hurt by the great flood of 1913. The flood waters washed all of the chairs out of the factory, and they piled up in the river, contributing to the demise of the Tin Bridge.
The Great Depression was the beginning of the end for the Delaware Chair Company. Already operating for nearly 60 years, the company came upon hard times. New furniture was not a priority for individuals and businesses, and sales plummeted. In 1929, the Delaware Chair Company went into receivership. A price of $55,000 was fixed by the court, although the company was appraised at $102,000. It officially ceased operations in 1935.
Duncan and Giles Hubbard bought the company in 1936. Four years later, they would sell to Sam Moore and a few of his friends for $15,000 – just 10 percent of the stock value in 1885. Moore moved the company to Christianburg, Virginia in 1943 and went on to have one of the most successful furniture companies in the country. The property on Flax Street has gone through several owners, including Mathis Moving and Storage. Mathis had it for several years and sold it in 2005. The current owner is based in Los Angeles.
The Delaware County Historical Society has several examples of these locally made chairs throughout their museum. If the chair has not been painted, the trademark may still be visible. The Delaware Gazette reported in 1879 that “the name of Delaware found on a double caned chair, is as sure a guarantee of its intrinsic excellence” and “the goods may be seen in the best stores of the land, and may be readily distinguished by the trademark, The Delaware Chair, branded on the back of the slat and the bottom of the seat.”
Occasionally you can find them on collectible furniture websites. According to one collectors guide, Delaware chairs are very rare. However, they are relatively inexpensive when you can find them, and can cost around $150 depending on condition. The chairs can be re-caned and at one time the Delaware Arts Castle offered a class on this process. There are several online sources for learning how to cane, and the difference between cane and wicker. If you get really good at it, you might even want to open a local chapter of the Seat Weavers Guild. Citizen Cane is a California company that has restored a few Delaware Chairs and their website is very informative.
The Delaware Chair Company surely earned its place in local history. Based on their production rate in 1880, and the number of years they were open, they would have made more than a million chairs, perhaps close to two million. Many local residents have some of the chairs in their homes, or have stories passed down from relatives who worked in the factory. Next time you are in an antique store, think twice when you pass that chair. Or better yet, visit the Delaware County Historical Society to get a closer look at several different models. The hours are Sundays from 2:00-5:00, Tuesdays from 6:00-8:00, and Wednesdays from 10:00-12:00 and 1:00-5:00.
Sources: Delaware County Historical Society, City of Delaware East Side Historic Properties Survey Report, Hortense Harter (1989), Ohio Wesleyan University Digital Collections, General Business Review of Delaware County for 1889, 20th Century History of Delaware County, Ohio, History of Delaware County and Ohio (1880).