How often do you notice the chair you are sitting on in a restaurant? I’m a fairly observant person but I couldn’t tell you what kind of chairs my favorite restaurants use. Unless a chair is unusually uncomfortable I doubt I’d pay any attention to it at all.
Restaurant owners, managers, and designers, on the other hand, have thought about chairs a lot. There are numerous considerations that go into selecting them, including price, comfort, durability, style, portability, and how much space they occupy.
And let’s not leave out gender, because many of the chairs used in the 20th century were either intended to appeal to men or women, with the understanding that women will adapt to male preferences, but not necessarily vice versa. A 1912 etiquette column counseled women not to wrap their feet around the front legs of chairs in restaurants, but to keep them close together, facing straight ahead and flat on the floor. The author admitted the reason so many wrapped their feet around chair legs was that the chairs were too high for most women!
It’s hard to say exactly what chairs were used in the 19th century because of the lack of available images as compared to the 20th. In the early 19th century, public eating places were often furnished with benches, while chairs came later. After hunting up as many drawings of chairs as I could – mostly from Victorian trade cards and circulars of the 1880s [e.g., Glover’s Corner, Boston] — I’d say seating in ordinary, non-deluxe restaurants was fairly simple, with slat or spindle backs.
Certain chairs have been dominant in restaurants at various times over the past decades. The most successful beyond a doubt was commonly known as the “Vienna chair.” Used worldwide in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was one of the bentwood chairs developed and produced from Carpathian beech by the Thonet Company of Austria. Its stellar success was because it was graceful, durable, and lightweight. As one of the earliest chairs to be mass produced, it was also inexpensive. [Boos Bros., 1915]
Various versions of the Vienna chair were in use in this country in the 19th century. The C. L. Woodman restaurant of Chicago advertised in 1880 that it had remodeled and added “260 pretty chairs of cane and ebony [that] recall the days of our Viennese rambles.” In 1884 B. Nathan & Co., San Francisco, ran an ad saying “Sole Agents For Thonet Bros. Indestructible Bent-Wood Austrian Furniture and Chairs, for Hotels, Restaurants and Dining-rooms.”
Somewhat reminiscent of the Vienna chair, metal “ice cream parlor chairs” were used in various types of restaurants in the early 20th century.
Though it continued in use until WWII and even beyond, becoming collectible in the 1960s, the prototypical Vienna bentwood chair began to look dated in the 1930s, when streamlined aluminum or chrome chairs upholstered in colorful leatherette came into vogue. Some restaurants tried to update their bentwoods with paint or cloth covers that added color. [Lauer Sister’s, 1936]
But by the 1960s chairs with metal frames and padded vinyl backs and seats lost their 1930s moderne look, retreating into plainness and, for some, stackability. I have to admit what when I see this type of chair in a restaurant I lose faith that I will encounter good food. They are often used in restaurants that cater to banquets.
Tea rooms and other restaurants that pitched their appeal to women often tried to avoid using typical restaurant chairs. A newspaper in Canton OH in 1906 applauded a new luncheon restaurant for women that had “wicker chairs . . . instead of the conventional stiff restaurant chair.” No two of the wicker chairs were alike, the article said, giving the place a desirable “homelike” look. Many other tea rooms and inns used Windsor side and armchairs evoking a sense of Colonial times.
More expensive restaurants, especially those catering to men, were likely to use leather upholstered chairs, as shown in the men-only Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston.
Men evidently favored sturdy arm chairs with a clubby look or, more informally, less pretentious captain’s chairs. As early as 1862, Philadelphia’s Continental Café and Restaurant advertised that the gentlemen’s café was furnished with walnut tables with marble tops and handsome walnut chairs “covered with red morocco.”
More recently a stylish restaurant has demanded a stylish chair, though I’d be hard pressed to say what the typical restaurant chair of the 1980s up to today actually is.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020