Surprisingly for a simple piece of furniture, mainly associated with aged grandparents or mothers trying to coax a child to sleep, the rocking chair has a contentious history. Who’d have thought that this household item could provoke so much debate?
While it is true that rocking chairs have become synonymous with the United States there is no definite proof that this is where they originate from. Some bold theorists have claimed that it was Benjamin Franklin who first had the idea for the rocking chair and this is not an odd suggestion he did after contribute a lot to design and science in his time. However nobody has been able to find any reference to it in his papers so this theory has been largely discounted.
So if not Benjamin Franklin, then who? Its pretty impossible to say whose idea it was, not least because there is some difference of opinion as to whether the chair originated from England or America. Even the Swedes have put in a claim for it, citing a wooden chair with rockers called a “gungstol” which dates to around 1740. At the same time rocking chairs were certainly in use in England, mainly a model called the “Windsor rocker” so called because it was manufactured close the Windsor in the county of Berkshire.
It is entirely likely that taking inspiration from the rocking cradle made for babies chairs with rockers did exist before this time, maybe as early as the turn of that century. Obviously these would have been partially (adding curved pieces of wooden to an existing chair) or entirely homemade (the whole item made from scratch). It is known that people believed that the therapeutic effects that can be gained from gentle rocking of children, could also be enjoyed by adults the Shakers were particularly interested in this theory and there exist examples of beds with rockers that were built for sick adults.
There are also examples of rocking chairs made in England and America that appear to date back to the 1720s but it is believed that until at least 1740 these were items of garden furniture and much less refined than the furniture we know today. Later still was the mass production of rocking chairs, perhaps not until end of the eighteenth century.
What is certain is that by the mid eighteenth century the rocking chair was an established and popular piece of furniture coming in several quite distinct designs. They were also popular with furniture designers who enjoyed making their own mark on the idea and so there were “Salem rockers”, “Boston rockers” and the “American Windsor rocker” and so on.
The popularity of this simple but much loved piece of furniture is reflected in the fact that designers have continued to make new designs for the rocking chair based on new materials and new techniques. Even today, designers are looking for new ways to make the rocking chair using moulded plastics or renewable materials.
Now almost three hundred years old the humble rocker still has a place in the furniture world and a place in the hearts of many.