Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2016

Campeche chairs were favored for front-porch lounging

Q: I read an article on Monticello's original U.S. Campeche chair and was hoping to get some advice. My family has had this chair in its estate and we have always referred to as a Contour Chair. It would date certainly from 1900 as my grandfather was the collector and his father-in-law owned the local general store.

The Campeche chair in question. (reader submitted photo)

The chair has been reupholstered and had some reinforcement boards added, all of which is unnoticeable. Similar chairs rarely, if ever, appear for sale or in many catalogs. It is incredibly comfortable and desirable. How can I get the chair appraised to sell?

A: Thank you very much for your question. I am very familiar with the Campeche chair and others of a similar style. To give a true and accurate assessment of your family's chair I would need to evaluate it in person but I can give you some basic information from the photo you supplied.

Versions of this style of chair date back to the 1500s. The Campeche chair and its variations are characterized by lateral non-folding x-shaped bases, leather backs and reclined backs and seats.

The Campeche chair, aka Bataca chair, was introduced by Spanish colonists to Louisiana where they became very popular among the French Creole aristocracy. The leather-seated chair made of ox or mule hide, stretched over a mahogany frame was perfect for lounging on the porch of a plantation home for several reasons; it was extremely comfortable and was free of bugs unlike upholstered furniture. Cargo manifests from 1800-1825 show the Campeche or Bataca chairs being shipped to New Orleans and towns up and down the Mississippi River from coastal towns in Yucatan, the Mexican town of Campeche, Veracruz and Sisal.


An 1810 Campeche chair.

As to Thomas Jefferson's fondness for the Campeche chair or "Campeachy" chair was well known and mentioned in several letters. On March 8, 1827, Joseph Coolidge (1798–1879), the husband of Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge (1796–1876), wrote to Nicholas P. Trist (1800–1874), another of Jefferson's grandsons-in-law, regarding the distribution of the Monticello, Virginia, estate: "Ellen now desires me to say that if you can procure the Campeachy chair, with [Jefferson's] initials, she wishes you to do so, at any price."*

The current location of the chair is unknown, though a mahogany example with a scallop crest that descended in the Trist family to Thomas Jefferson Trist (1828–1890) is now at Monticello. The Jefferson family's use of Campeches is verified in other letters, including one that Virginia Randolph Trist (1801–1882) wrote to her sister Ellen shortly after her wedding to Coolidge: "He [Jefferson] misses you sadly every evening when he takes his seat in one of the campeachy chairs, & he looks so solitary & the empty chair on the opposite side of the door is such a melancholy sight to us all."*

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson returned to his "dear Monticello" after he completed his second term as president. With his financial resources now considerably diminished, he turned to the skilled slave woodworkers, who had helped build the plantation, to construct many of the furnishings for Monticello.

Campeche chairs were favorites for Jefferson, and it took him many letters and more than 10 years to get a Campeche chair sent from New Orleans. In Jefferson's time it was known as a "lolling chair" or "hammock chair"; Jefferson called it a "Campeachy hammock." The mahogany for the original chairs came from the Mexican province of Campeche, thus the name of this style of chair.

The first chair that Jefferson ordered was lost in a shipwreck. When he finally received a chair in 1819, he had several copies made by enslaved plantation woodworker John Hemmings. The chair has a distinctive X-shaped base, curvy arms and elegant top rail. Jefferson found the design very comfortable for reading and relaxing.

A 20th century contour chair.

As to the chair that you have, the base is in the style of the Campeche chair and the top rail would also fit in to the style of a contemporary Campeche but the upholstered arms, seat and back are not in the traditional styling. You mentioned that the chair had been reupholstered at some point so it is possible that the original leather was removed and replaced with fabric with the addition of the padded fabric rests on the arms.

As for a true "contour chair" these became popular in the 1950s, a photo is included with this article and you can see the distinct difference between the two chairs. The contour chair was not popular for very long as it was quite the eyesore, bulky and costly for the time.

Recent public sale prices for a Campeche chair from the 1900s, in very good to excellent condition, are around $2,000. With the alterations to your chair the value drops a great deal because the original leather is gone.

* Virginia R. Trist to Coolidge, June 27, 1825, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville


Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to publisher@discoverypub.com. Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to www.michelleknowsantiques.com for a one-on-one appraisal.