Set sail on the history of the deckchair

Set sail on the history of the deckchair
Tens of thousands of deckchairs in striped canvas could be found on the strands, promenades and piers of the early 20th century — either brought by the user or hired by the hour. The first deckchairs had one position but later varieties would offer a range of reclining angles. Picture: iStock

Kya deLongchamps sets sail on the history of the deckchair.

IF YOU have ever watched a traditional deckchair canvas fill with a summer breeze, and lift into the air from the frame — the similarity to a spinnaker (head-sail) is striking. 

The construction uses just three open wooden rectangles (one an open “U”) and a single hammock of loose seating material. It’s discreetly beautiful, with the soft curve and movement of the seat contrasted to the slim angularity of the frame. 

The design genius is easily overlooked as we shake out the atrophied spiders and pinch our withered, white Irish fingers setting it up.

The very sight of a deckchair is visual short-hand for holidays, cruising, vintage tennis matches, and tartan flasks with egg and cress sandwiches set out on a picnic rug. On soft sand, hit a deckchair in any motion but a carefully calculated, backward fall, and its delicately gimbled frame can tip you over, face down into the footing. Four deckchairs or 1960s sunloungers on their side and a stolen blanket make a superb back-garden fort — just saying.

Folding chairs set on a cross-frame have ancient roots and were known to the Vikings, Greeks and Romans. Simple to collapse and re-dress with finer materials, backless stools were ideal court and campaign furniture that could be carried by camel or horse — the versatility and convenience is certainly nothing new.

As usual the Americans and the English have a polite academic struggle over just who came up with the deckchair as we know it — a long, folding timber frame with marine canvas strung from two members and braced with a third. A folding chair was perfect for use on board passenger ships, a “chaise transatlantique” — as it could be flattened, hung up and secured on batons, and reassembled easily by the crew to suit multiple occasions.

John Cham of Boston introduced a patent in 1855 for a folding chair that’s often cited as a design first in the history of our deckchair. Cham’s chair is boldly modern, but does not include the suspended single canvas sheet of our coastal vintage favourite. 

It looks more likely inspired by examples like the folding chair of Guldhøj in the National Museum of Denmark (which though wildly uncomfortable to a 21st-century backside is an astonishing and famous piece of 15th-century BC craft). Early American chairs have a padded back and seat and don’t require the athleticism of a true deckchair to swoop aboard.

In 1886, John Thomas Moore (1864-1929) of Macclesfield in England, patented a lawn chair — the “Waverley” made up of three wood forms and a piece of marine canvas in olive green. He actually introduced two chairs in this patent group. The Hygienic was an outdoor rocking chair which was supposed to sort of stir your guts into better behaviour.

The later Victorians were weirdly obsessed with digestive matters. There was enthusiastic rebranding of Moore’s design, and an 1880 advertising poster by Maple & Co (Tottenham Court Road) shows a deckchair brazenly title the “Yankee Hammock Chair” with a heavily dressed society lady struggling to read her book in full recline over her bustle.

The British and Irish strands, promenades and piers of the early 20th century flocked with tens of thousands of deckchairs in striped canvas — either brought by the user or hired by the hour. Six hundred beech folding chairs with a more gentrified two-part caned seat/back and footrest, would sail with the HMS Titanic in 1912, many by R Holman & Co, Boston, Mass.

The deckchairs on the ship were thrown into the sea as flotation devices, being used in all probability for just a few desperate minutes. A wooden steamer-style American-made chair picked up from the waters in the days following the sinking of the ship and brought back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, was sold in 2015 for £100,000 (roughly €112,500) by auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Son (Wiltshire). 

You can find similar designs by Skagerak and even Aldi. To see an original, visit the Museum of the City of New York (1220 5th Avenue, mcny.org) which occasionally displays a Titanic deckchair donated to their collection by the family of Estée Lauder.

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4.12.1912 My mother captured this, I made a new friend named Jack Dawson. He's supposedly an artist, he's rather good. #cutie #imengaged #titanicdeck

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The first deckchairs have one position but later models would use a variety of devices to offer a range of reclining angles.

The adjustable back of a wood and leather colonial favourite, the “steamer” chair deployed on covered verandas, indoors or in the conservatory of a Victorian household has an adjustable back of a rod and a receiving slot seen on some liner chairs used at sea. Look out for them at auction as they make lovely inclusions re-sprung and polished up in oak.

For a single quality deckchair try Kare design, €69 (adjustable), woodesign.ie. Jan Kurtz (Denmark) and Emu (Italy) both offer designer deckchairs in the vintage form with metal adjusting rails, batyline slip covers and a little more contemporary polish in the €240 plus range, ambientedirect.com. 

For something special (what a great wedding gift) the double-deck Mr & Mrs Deckchair can be custom-printed with a digital image of your couple or something they treasure, €169, bagsoflove.ie.

We love the work of The Stripe Company with their gorgeous Edwardian loungers with footstools and canopies, €255 (optional pom-pom fringing), thestripescompany.com. 

You can find cheaper, new deckchairs in any good garden centre in cotton or synthetic seats, just ensure the timber whether beech or more commonly eucalyptus is PEFC-certified and the fixings are of reasonable quality, and store them undercover over the wetter months.

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