A Brief History of Cane Bottom Chairs
Cane bottom chairs originated in China. American and European craftsmen incorporated woven cane into their furniture as early as 17th century Jacobean furniture. During the 18th century furniture was still hand built by individual craftsmen and very few chairs had cane seats. The more affluent customers ordered the William and Mary, Chippendale, and Sheridan period chairs with tapestry or leather seats. The "common" people used chairs with solid wood bottoms.
Cane bottom chairs started to became popular in America around 1820, with the advent and industrialization and factory built furniture. The 1820s marked the beginning of real American expansion. With the war of 1812, we won our economic independence from Great Britton, our population was growing rapidly, and we had the Louisiana territories for expansion. New technologies and industrialization was creating wealth and a more widespread middle class. American needed a lot of furniture, and factories grew rapidly to supply the demand. Factories could produce spindle and dowel construction easily, and cane bottom seats didn't require much wood. The factories mass produced the seats by creating a seat weaving cottage industry. They built the seat frames in the factory, then distributed the frames for weavers to cane the seat at home. They collected the completed seats then could quickly assemble the chairs in the factory. As the American population grew and factories grew to meet the demand, manufactures built thousands of cane bottom chair. Cane bottom chairs reached the peak of their popularity between 1860 and 1890. Most of the chairs we find in antique shops today date form this period.
Weaving the seats accounted for the greatest expense for these chairs. After 1890, the labor costs of weaving the seats became too high, and manufactures developed alternatives for the traditional hand woven cane seats. They invented machines to weave the cane in sheets, much like weaving cloth, then glued the cane into a groove around the edge of the seat. This was a much faster and cheaper process, so between 1890 and 1900, factories transitioned to the cheaper machine woven cane. By around 1900, all American furniture manufacturers were using machine woven cane for chair bottoms.
Nineteenth century manufacturers used cane bottom chairs in the full range of their furniture styles and quality. Today we can still find higher end walnut and mahogany chairs with fine turnings and inlays as well as cheap cottage maple chairs with simple turning or straight legs. For 100+ years old antiques cane chairs remain inexpensive. Old "rough" chairs are around for $50.00 or less. Completely restored chairs with new cane are available for as little as $150.00.