Rocking chairs are a ubiquitous piece of furniture when it comes to sunny porches, and dusty verandas. They have been used for centuries for calming babies, helping relieve back and joint pain, and generally chilling out.
These ingenious inventions have a solid history and a special place in many people’s hearts. Perhaps you have inherited a rocking chair from a relative? Or spotted one at a yard sale? Are you interested in buying one or building a collection? Then you have come to the right place!
We will provide you with 3 guides: a guide to identifying antique rocking chairs, a guide to valuing antique rocking chairs, and finally a guide to buying antique rocking chairs. But first, let’s delve a little into the history of relaxing rockers.
Brief History Of Rocking Chairs
According to experts, rocking chairs were available on the market around the year 1710. Benjamin Franklin was credited with their invention, but it is believed that the farmers and furniture makers of America were responsible for creating the rocking design.
Their original intended use was as nursing chairs in hospitals and homes, for mothers with new babies. This intention was multi-purpose – the rocking motion could calm the baby on the mother’s lap and leave the mother hands-free to undertake other essential activities like darning. People soon started to realise that the gentle rocking motion had many calming and pain-relieving benefits, and the rocking chair became a widespread household item.
Rocking chairs were particularly popular in America and were slower to spread across the sea into Europe. They really hit the worldwide market in 1820 with the invention of the famous Shaker rocking chair in New York. John F. Kennedy relied on rocking chairs for palliative pain relief for his back, leading to the coining of the Kennedy rocker which became a ubiquitous item in many homes.
Antique Rocking Chair Identification Guide
First, it should be noted that a rocking chair is only classed as antique if it is over 100 years old. It is classed as vintage if it is between 20-100 years old.
Antique furniture can be pretty hard to date, especially as there have been replications of popular historic designs in more recent years. However, there are a few steps you can take when trying to identify a rocking chair…
1. Maker’s And Manufacturer’s Marks
The ideal situation in terms of dating a rocking chair is if it still has its maker’s or manufacturer’s mark. Not all rocking chairs will have these either because the mark has fallen off or faded, or because it was never marked in the first place. Alternatively, it may be too old to have a maker’s mark – these marks only became common during the 18th century.
You can usually find marks on the underside of the seat, or sometimes on the chair back or prominent feature like a spindle. Have a careful look all over the chair. If it has had upholstery or cushioning added, you may need to look underneath these additions to find a mark – try not to damage the chair though! Only do this if it is easy to remove the material.
Maker’s marks can appear in the form of a hand-written or printed label or sticker, or a branded or stamped mark. Usually they contain words, letters, numbers or images, or a combination of these. If you have a manufacturing date this is excellent! A logo or manufacturer name is also very helpful and can be easily searched for online.
Sometimes a name and address of a retailer will be printed on the chair. While this may not lead you positively identify the chair, it can give you some clues to the provenance of the item.
You can find more information about identifying furniture marks here.
The style of a rocking chair can help enormously in identifying the type of chair and its provenance, especially if there is no maker’s mark. We have assembled some of the most popular and commonly found styles here which will hopefully help you to identify your chair…
- Bentwood rocker – these were made around 1860 by Michael Thonet and the Thonet Brothers Manufacturers in Austria. This design is characterised by a bent beech wood frame and a swirling design. They are relatively lightweight and can come with a cane seat and back support.
- Boston rocker – the most popular of these were made between 1930-1990 from oak or pine wood. They were often painted black and are characterised by features including a scrolled seat, a spindled back, and a rolling headpiece, with intricate fruit and flower patterns.
- Folding rocking chair – these ingenious chairs began to become most popular around 1870. There is a great many varieties of folding rocking chair but they are obviously characterised by the ability to fold the back down onto the seat.
- Windsor rocking chair – this style of rocking chair was first made in 1720 but only really became popular in the 1800s. It is characterised by an elegant, curvy shape, with spindles inserted into the arm rests and back. They were often left without a finish when produced by English manufacturing companies.
- Wicker rocking chair – wicker is still popular as a chair material now, but is usually synthetic in newly produced chairs. Natural wicker has been used as a furniture material dating back to the Roman era! It was particularly popular during the Victorian era when designs became much more detailed and sophisticated. A design woven into a wicker chair may give you a clue as to the provenance, for example some manufacturers favoured heart-shaped or star-shaped patterns.
- Jenny Lind children’s rocker – this style of chair is also known as spool-turned. Jenny Lind was a famous Swedish opera singer around the 1850s who has several now antique items of furniture named after her, including the Jenny Lind trunk. This chair is characterised by thin spindles inserted into the back, crossbars and legs.
- Platform rockers – this unique style of rocking chair comprises a stationary base with a rocking seat above. Springs are installed in the chair, allowing the rocking movement but avoiding making marks and scratches on wooden flooring.
- Other common rocking chair styles include the ladderback rocker, mission style rocker, pressed back rocker and sewing rocker. Each of these has their own unique traits but there can be much overlap as companies often borrowed ideas from one another, putting their own spin on the design when it came to manufacturing.
Antique rocking chairs were almost always crafted from wood, it is rare to find any other materials used to make the main frame (although for example metal and wicker embellishments were sometimes added). The type of wood your chair is made from can give a clue as to the provenance.
- Oak – this was the most common type of wood used outside America between the Middle Ages and the 17th walnut and mahogany became popular in the late 1600s.
- Walnut – this was a popular wood used in Europe, primarily between the 1600s and around 1750.
- Mahogany – this was a popular material for furniture making around the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s.
- Other hardwoods like birch and maple – these were popularly used in America, especially in the 1600s and 1700s and continued until rocking chairs began to lose their popularity around the turn of the 20th century.
You can find a useful guide to identifying wood types here.
In the Victorian period, rockers which had been upholstered were very popular. Upholstered rockers are sometimes called Lincoln rockers. Materials including leather, wool, and silk damask were used, and coil springs were often installed beneath.
As with other fine furniture, antique rocking chairs were usually given a finishing coat to protect the wood against wear and tear and water damage. Although you can try to test the finish yourself, this will damage the area you test on the chair so is not usually recommended. This guide can help you understand more about wood finishes and how to identify them.
There are some basic rules that help you find out the era your chair is from. Shellac was one of the main finishes used before around 1860. Lacquer and varnish started to be used from around 1850, and tend to flake with time. Very old chairs from pre 1800 were often finished with oil, wax and milk paint.
4. Production Method
There are some basic ways you can try to suss whether tour char was hand-made or machine-made. Look at any matching parts – are there slight differences in size and shape? Hand-made items will often have slight differences while machine-made items are usually perfectly matching.
Look closely at the joints – have they been glued and pegged? Do they have a slightly rough finish compared to, say, your IKEA chair? What shape are the heads of the screws or nails? Antique rocking chairs were usually pegged with wooden pegs, and glued together. If nails were used these were often square-headed. Nowadays, machine-made furniture uses screws and nails with round heads.
5. Antiques Forums
There are a wealth of useful antiques forums out there where both experts and amateur enthusiasts love to share antiques and help one another to identify their treasures. Try:
6. Ask An Expert
If all else fails, you can try to ask an antiques expert. See if there are any antiques shops or independent appraisers near you, so the expert can see the chair in person. If this is not possible, you can try sending photos and detailed descriptions to someone offering online appraisal. Most antiques experts love to share their knowledge and have a keen interest in antique mysteries. Bear in mind you may have to pay for these services.
Antique Rocking Chair Valuing Guide
While we can’t offer any definite advice on how much a rocking chair is worth, there are some general guidelines that dictate the value of a chair. We can say fairly confidently that a genuine antique rocking chair could go for between $100 up to $3500 USD.
1. Maker/Manufacturer And Style
The maker or manufacturer of a rocking chair can determine its value. In general, the rarer the chair, the higher the price. Victorian period chairs often comprise expensive hardwoods including walnut, rosewood, and mahogany which raises their price.
Limited edition chairs such as the L & J.G Stickley rocking chair can be worth between $750 and $4,000 USD.
In terms of some of the common styles we listed above, Bentwood rockers can sell for between $100 and $250 and wicker chairs can fetch up to $350 if they were produced in the early 1900s. Some of the lower cost varieties include folding rocking chairs and Jenny Lind chairs which tend to go for between $100 and $200 USD.
Again, as a general rule, the older the chair the greater the value. This is not always true, and chairs from prominent eras will fetch a greater price. Some of these include chairs from the Victorian period (1837—1901) and early Arts & Crafts chairs (1880’s—1920’s).
Chairs in good condition will fetch a higher price than those with damage. Chairs which have been restored or repaired are not classed as being in original condition, so will go for a much lower price. However, even is a chair is not in good repair but has a rare provenance or is highly attractive and decorative it will still fetch a high price.
You can get a great idea of the price of your item by searching for similar items on auction sites including the antique rocking chair section of eBay, and a collection of interesting auction items on Collectors Weekly.
Antique Rocking Chair Buying Guide
There are several factors which affect the price of an antique rocking chair listed above, which are useful to look out for when buying a chair for yourself. Follow these tips to make a successful purchase…
1. Do Your Research
Before buying an antique rocking chair it is a good idea to form a specific idea of what you would like. If you want something from a certain era in history, a chair with a specialised use or particular materials, or something from a renowned manufacturer, you need to build your knowledge to make sure you’re getting the real deal.
Familiarise yourself with characteristics of the rocking chair style you desire, and get an idea of the rough cost of such an item before you buy anything.
2. Details, Details, Details
Whether buying online or at an antiques fair you should always go for items which include as much detail as possible. Details can include the maker or manufacturer, the condition of the item, any damage or faults, the materials it is made from, and key features such as unique spindles or embellishments.
Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for more details such as extra close-ups if buying online, or a little more about the provenance of the chair if buying in person. Purchasing an antique rocking chair from a reputable seller is highly recommended.
3. Check Reputable Auction Sites
The rocking chair section of Love Antiques is a good place to look. This site is mainly focused on the European market, but prices are stated in GBP, EUR, and USD. The sellers on this site are antiques dealers, and it is connected with antiques fairs where buyers and sellers can go to exchange antiques.
It’s worth keeping an eye out for yard sales and second hand shops – you can find many interesting items for very low prices in these places. Plus it’s a super fun hobby to pursue!