Ladder back chairs are chairs that have horizontal slats across their back, making them look like ladders. They feature a woven rush seat and a high back. Most of them are side chairs, while some come with rockers.
Ladder back chairs are unique antique items. Back in the day, they were prevalent both for domestic and commercial use due to their simple design, ease of construction, and affordability.
Nowadays, you can find similar designs on modern furniture. Also, your local furniture store will probably have many of them in stock.
But, what is it that makes these chairs so popular? Why are people willing to spend hundreds of dollars on an old chair?
If you want the answers to these questions, keep on reading!
History of Ladder Back Chairs
The first appearance of ladder back chairs was during the Middle Ages. But, their popularity rose significantly by the 17th century in England. These chairs were also favored by American colonists.
In the mid-17th century, furniture makers copied the design of the ladder back chair and manufactured premium and fashionable models. They built them using premium woods like walnut and decorated the top slat of the chair with beautiful patterns and ornaments.
During the 19th century, the simplistic design of the ladder back chair was overshadowed by the new and upcoming Victorian style of furniture. Thus, ladder back chairs lost their prestige and were relegated to secondary rooms in a house.
Today, there has been a resurgence in antique ladder back chairs. Not only will you find reproductions of this type of chair by modern furniture stores, but you’ll also find plenty of them in thrift stores.
They are a popular addition to modern houses and provide a rustic aesthetic that contrasts nicely with the aesthetic of contemporary furniture.
Styles of Ladder Back Chairs
Most ladder back chairs share some characteristics. They are traditionally made from wood and come in either a natural or painted finish. Their posts are also rounded using a lathe. The production of ladderback chairs required special tools that weren’t necessary for other types of chairs at the time.
In any case, since ladder back chairs were so prevalent during the 17th and 18th centuries, there are several different variations of them. These are some of the most popular ones:
The rabbit-ear ladder back chair is a particularly rare type. What makes it unique is its back posts which have a downward taper and curve backward, unlike traditional ones with straight posts. Their shape and size are reminiscent of the ears of a rabbit, hence its name.
Like we mentioned above, most vintage ladder back chairs have rounded or turned feet, which adds to their overall appeal. However, some ladder back chairs were not rounded on a lathe and featured square posts instead. An example is this set of Victorian dining chairs.
Ladder back chairs are often called slat back chairs because of the slats on the back of the chair. Nevertheless, some antique ladder back chairs had large panels on their back instead of slats. This would add more surfaces to decorate with carvings and ornaments.
Antique rocking chairs are a large category with several subcategories like ladder back chairs. These ladderback chairs with rocking feet were very popular in America during the 19th century. This is a classic ladder back rocking chair from the 19th century made from pine with a woven bark seat.
How Do I Identify an Antique Chair?
The popularity of antique chairs has increased significantly over the past few years. Therefore, it’s no surprise that there are many reproductions of antique designs in modern furniture. If you just want the antique look, opting for a contemporary chair that’s antique-inspired may be the best solution for you.
However, if you want a genuine antique chair, you’ll first need to be able to distinguish it from modern replications. This task can be very tedious, and if you feel unsure about whether the chair you want is an authentic antique, it’s best to ask for a professional appraisal.
Nevertheless, there are still some things to look for that can help you identify authentic antiques from replicas.
Firstly, you need to try and recognize the particular type or style. There are numerous different styles of chairs like ladder back or Windsor chairs. If you find the category, inspect the chair closer to look for any differences from the original style. If it has many differences, it’s probably a replica of an antique.
Another telltale sign is the design period of the chair. Some popular designs like Victorian or Art Deco are very distinct and can give you a rough estimate of your chair’s era. This can, in turn, help you determine if it’s an antique.
Finally, there’s the chair’s condition. Like any antique furniture, antique chairs should have obvious signs of aging. If wood or the joints look new and pristine, it’s most likely a modern construction based on a vintage design.
How do you date an old chair?
Once you’ve determined that your chair is indeed a true antique, it’s crucial to have a rough estimate of its age. These are a few things to look for when you want to date an old chair:
One of the best ways to determine the age of your chair is to look for any tags or marks by the manufacturer. If you can find the manufacturer’s name, a brand logo, or a serial number, you can search it on a collectors’ database or the manufacturer’s website. This way, you’ll find the exact date your chair was manufactured.
Chairs that were mass-produced during the 19th century were stamped with the manufacturer’s tag. Look for this mark under the seat or on the inside of one of the chair’s back or front legs.
As we mentioned above, the specific design or style can give you important information about its age. Every different school of design was popular during a particular era. Therefore, it’s highly likely that a chair with a certain design was built during that same era.
This is particularly helpful for a few designs like the Art Nouveau design, which was popular for only a few decades. This gives you a more precise date window for your chair.
In addition to an antique chair’s style and design, its materials can also be an important indicator of its age. Most antique chairs were built from common wood types like oak, walnut maple, or hickory.
However, some chairs were made from exotic woods, like African mahogany. Also, some styles of chairs, like Windsor chairs, sometimes included more than one type of wood.
Initially, antique chairs did not include any cushioning. However, that changed during the 18th century, with cushioned chairs and armchairs providing a more comfortable seating space. The first cushioned chairs were filled with feathers.
In the mid-18th century, manufacturers started including padding and springs in their cushioning. During the late 19th and early 20th century, materials were changed, with synthetic materials like fiberfill and upholstery foam becoming dominant.
How Much Are Antique Ladder Back Chairs Worth?
Whether you’re a buyer or a seller of antique chairs, it’s essential to know how much an antique ladder back chair is worth. Several factors determine the value of an antique ladder back chair. Some of the most important ones are:
As with all antique items, antique ladderbacks are much more valuable if they are close to their original state. If any part of the chair, like its back, its seat, or its legs, has been replaced, its value is significantly reduced.
Similarly, the chair should not have any restorations. A chair that has been repainted, reupholstered, or refinished will have a much lower value than the original one. Even if it’s done professionally, it still takes away from the antique aesthetic of the chair.
Condition is another top priority for all vintage and antique items. Naturally, ladder back chairs are not expected to be in pristine condition, as they were items with heavy and daily usage. It doesn’t take much for ladderback chairs to be in excellent condition.
They should have all their pieces attached. Also, their frames and joints need to be durable and steady. Finally, while some scratches are acceptable -and even desirable- there shouldn’t be any large cracks or blemishes that ruin the chair’s appearance.
Antique ladderback chairs were one of the most popular types of furniture and, thus, were built by a wide assortment of people. From amateurs who knew very little about furniture to high-end furniture manufacturers, there is a large variety in terms of quality.
Naturally, antique chairs that experienced craftsmen built will fetch much higher prices. The finishing, craftsmanship, and decorations on a chair will contribute to its value, as a high-quality antique chair is a much better investment than a low-quality one.
As we mentioned before, ladder back chairs were a very common household item. In order to stand out, some manufacturers utilized unique decorations for their chairs. These included remarkable carvings on the back or legs of the chair and even rare types of wood.
Some manufacturers also stamped their chairs with a unique mark to distinguish them from other similar designs. These marks were at a discrete spot, like under the seat, but anyone who knew where to look could find them.
Just like designer clothing that is much more expensive than other similar garments, an antique chair that was designed by a famous designer will have a lot more value.
Designers like Le Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh were some of the most influential designers of all time. Any piece of furniture designed by them will probably cost a fortune to obtain.
Provenance essentially refers to the history of an item. Like most antique items, if there is a story behind them, they will be much more valuable.
If you happen to own an old chair that was passed down to you by your ancestors, make sure to document and verify its heritage. Most collectors enjoy a good story behind an antique item and are willing to pay more for it.
Ladder back chairs were often used in the dining room. Thus, potential buyers may be keen to purchase a set of chairs rather than a single one. While a uniquely-adorned standalone chair might fetch a high price, a matching set of chairs might sell for even more money.
How to Care for Antique Ladder Back Chairs?
Proper maintenance is a very important thing to consider when you want to buy antique furniture like ladder back chairs. Despite their visual appeal and craftsmanship, they can be very prone to environmental conditions due to their wooden construction, and you should not neglect them.
In general, you should avoid exposure to extreme sunlight, high humidity or moisture, and high temperatures. You should also take great care when cleaning them and avoid commercial cleaning agents, as they can be very abrasive to antique chairs.
If you want more detailed information regarding the maintenance of antique furniture, you should seek a professional conservator. Also, have a look at this in-depth guide on how to care for your antique furniture properly.
Antique chairs, and particularly ladder back chairs, are a great addition to any modern household. They are both functional pieces of furniture and also provide a unique rural aesthetic to an otherwise modern house.
If you’re interested in buying some antique chairs, make sure to do plenty of research on their different styles and their values. Also, if you have the time, have a look around your local antique stores to see these chairs in person. You never know what hidden treasures you might find!