Rocking chair: the American invention that has remained popular for centuries

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Katerina Bulovska
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For centuries, the rocking chairs have been among the most popular furniture. The definition first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1787. The rocking chair has become an icon of American culture, but the addition of rollers was not originally an American invention.

The design of the rocking chair was inspired by rocking cradles, that date back to ancient times, and the rocking horses that originated in the Middle Ages. It is still unclear who invented the chair, but America is generally accepted as the place of its invention. Some sources believe it is a product of cabinetmakers, while others disagree, claiming Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, to be the original inventor.

The rocking chair was initially made as outdoor furniture, but eventually, it found its way into interior design. Initially, the chair was used by elderly people or mothers who were putting their babies to sleep with the help of the chair’s rhythmic motion, while simultaneously knitting or doing other activities. But as time passed, the chair became more and more popular and soon it was a favorite furniture item for people of all ages.

Wooden rocking chair. Author: The Living Room. CC BY 2.0

The classic rocking chair was made of wood and consisted of a straight back, curved seat, and rockers. Most commonly used were variations of the Windsor rocking chair. One of them was the Boston rocking chair, described on one occasion by Wallace Nutting, a popular American artist, as “the most popular chair ever made, which people sit in, antiquarians despise, and novices seek.” The earliest forms of the chair were made by craftsmen from New England and after the Industrial Revolution, the region became famous for its rocking chairs that were purchased worldwide. Many furniture manufacturers mass-produced the rocking chair, but the most popular among them was Lambert Hitchcock from Connecticut.

A photo of man lounging in a rocking chair while reading

However, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Europeans that visited the United States were struggling to understand the American fascination of the with rocking chairs. One Englishmen would comment: “How this lazy and ungraceful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine, but the nation seems so wedded to it, that I see little chance of its being forsaken.”

Rocking chair. Author: Sheila Sund. CC BY 2.0

The rocking chair is connected to the White House, especially to the President John F. Kennedy, who incorporated the chairs in almost every room. The president suffered from a chronic back pain and found that rocking chairs provided some relief. The therapeutic benefits of the rocking chair were widely known at the time and even today, the interior of a lot of nursing homes and mental facilities include some of these chairs.

A rocking chair designed by Swedish painter and furniture designer, Karin Bergöö Larsson

The rocking chair is also linked to another President of the United States, only this time, it was part of a very unfortunate event- the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was sitting in a comfortable rocking chair at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. the same night when he was fatally shot by the stage actor John Wilkes Bootha.

Two rocking chairs on the deck. Author: Robin Riat. CC BY 2.0

In the 20th century, the rocking chair didn’t lose its popularity; on the contrary, many contemporary furniture designers created new versions of the chairs, using improved techniques and new construction materials. For instance, the famous American designers Charles and Ray Eames used fiberglass-reinforced plastic and wooden rockers to produce an entirely different chair from the already-existing wooden ones. The Eames molded plastic rocker was designed in 1948 and people were fascinated by the brightly colored design.

Eames Rocking Chair. Author: David Costa. CC BY 2.0

Nowadays, rocking chairs in different shapes, colors, and designs are part of many living rooms, bedrooms, porches, and balconies. They are also used for their original purpose as garden furniture. Authenticated pieces of the furniture are quite expensive, but luckily, affordable rocking chairs are still produced by many furniture companies.