Furniture for the Porch

Around the year 1900, Americans began to spend more time outdoors—flocking to the seashore, rusticating in the mountains and at the lake, venturing to the new National Parks out West. Closer to home, they repaired to the porch.
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Around the year 1900, Americans began to spend more time outdoors—flocking to the seashore, rusticating in the mountains and at the lake, venturing to the new National Parks out West. Closer to home, they repaired to the porch.
Painted fanback Adirondack chairs are perfect behind the river-stone piers on this California bungalow. Photo by William Wright

Painted fanback Adirondack chairs are perfect behind the river-stone piers on this California bungalow. Photo by William Wright

Naturally, outdoor living involved having places to sit and visit, eat, and drink, driving a new demand for leisure furniture. Some styles reflected the modern fascination with “roughing it” in the Adirondacks or out West. Others, like the porch rocker and wicker furniture, were refinements on familiar, older forms. Porch swings and hammocks came about from the desire for rest and relaxation.

A porch swing along with wicker in the traditional crisscross Bar Harbor style transform a rubble-stone porch into an outdoor living room. Photo: Jaimee Itagaki

A porch swing along with wicker in the traditional crisscross Bar Harbor style transform a rubble-stone porch into an outdoor living room. Photo: Jaimee Itagaki

Variously known as camp, lodge, or cabin furniture, rustic styles often have a distinct regional feel because each chair or table was fashioned more-or-less on the spot, from locally available materials. In the Northeast, Adirondack or Northwoods furniture was made of peeled or unpeeled logs, twigs, and stumps of cedar and Northern white or yellow birch. Tables, chests, and chairs were often decorated with bark applied like a veneer, along with tiny branches laid in intricate patterns known as twig mosaics.

Built in the Arts & Crafts tradition, the ‘Stag Run’ mahogany dining set from Center of the World can be used indoors, on porch or on patio.

Built in the Arts & Crafts tradition, the ‘Stag Run’ mahogany dining set from Center of the World can be used indoors, on porch or on patio.

In the South, early forms of twig and root furniture were built or woven from rhododendron (mountain laurel) and willow. Although the materials may seem ephemeral, nameless artisans were able to create massive tables as well as chairs and rockers out of them. Despite its rough-hewn appearance, willow that’s been steamed and bent into shape makes incredibly comfortable furniture, which only improves with use and age.

The ‘Classic’ design from Nostalgic Porch Swings, suspended from sturdy rope, comes in widths from 52" to 77" and includes all-weather seat cushions.

The ‘Classic’ design from Nostalgic Porch Swings, suspended from sturdy rope, comes in widths from 52" to 77" and includes all-weather seat cushions.

The most widespread of the rustic furniture styles was undoubtedly Indiana hickory, still available today from at least one company. Made commercially by 10 or so companies in Indiana between about 1890 and 1930, chairs, tables, bed frames, and more were built from hickory poles cut from saplings, then bent in distinctive “hoop” shapes that supported woven wood-splint backs and seats. The furniture was shipped nationally; examples of seating made by Old Hickory Furniture remain today at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming.

The rocking chair appears in almost every form of rustic furniture, and in other materials including wicker. Long a favorite for Victorian-era parlors and bedrooms, wicker is a type of lightweight, woven reed or rattan furniture first popularized in the second half of the 19th century. The dominant wicker maker was the Wakefield company, later Heywood–Wakefield (better known for its Mid-century Modern furniture).

Elaborate and fanciful in its infancy, wicker styling became simpler and more like its Mission counterparts after 1900. In one commonly repeated design—the Bar Harbor chair—the back rail curves in a long, undulating line into flattened arm rests. The back, sides, and apron are open weave.

The ‘Cape Charles’ rocker from Cottage Home has the rounded crest, flat arms, and open weaving of 1920s wicker.

The ‘Cape Charles’ rocker from Cottage Home has the rounded crest, flat arms, and open weaving of 1920s wicker.

Wicker also moved onto the lawn, thanks to Marshall Lloyd of Lloyd Looms, who in 1917 perfected a weather-resistant version from strands of high-tensile wire wrapped in kraft paper. Wicker is still made in many of the popular styles of the Teens and Twenties, from all-natural wood canes and plant fibers, from synthetics, or from blends of natural and synthetic materials. Take your pick among three-season wicker, wicker for sheltered locations only, and truly weatherproof “wicker.”

If there was but one piece of furniture on the porch in the early years of the 20th century, chances are it was a hammock or a porch swing. Napping and sleeping alfresco became a health craze in the first decades of the 20th century, and many homes had sleeping porches and sunrooms.

Woven from sturdy rope, a hammock suspended from hooks fixed to porch posts and could be taken down when not in use. Wooden swings hung on rope or chains from the ceiling structure were more permanent. One inventive type is both hammock and swing. The Gloucester Bed Hammock, which appeared in 1865, was made of sail canvas suspended from ropes held in place by grommets. The original had a horsehair mattress for sleeping. These ingenious swings have been revived by Penobscot Bay Porch Swings. The refreshed design is sewn from waterproof Sunbrella fabrics. The seat is still comfortable enough for a nap.

Made from waterproof fabrics, porch swings from Penobscot Bay Porch Swings are available in backless, low-back, and high-back styles.

Made from waterproof fabrics, porch swings from Penobscot Bay Porch Swings are available in backless, low-back, and high-back styles.

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