Caned Furniture Case Study: Skills Transmission/New Skills

Skills Transmission / New Skills

In the absence of definitive evidence, early examples of caned chairs in England were likely to have arrived either as gifts from eminent persons in Asia to members of the aristocracy, or possibly as curios brought back from Asia by Captains and Officers of the EIC.  These would be a part of their entitlement from the Company to import a certain amount of ‘private trade’, from which they might earn ten times their salary.[1]

The fashion for (and corresponding manufacture of) caned furniture in England, occurred in three periods.  The first was from around 1660 until 1730 (see figure 5), the second from 1790 until 1820 (see figure 6).  Demand then erupted around 1850 with the impact of industrial manufacture and continued until around 1920 (see figure 7). Periods of fashion in mainland Europe for caned furniture were generally later than the corresponding periods in England.  The range of chair frame designs using caned panels is almost infinite, but each of the three periods noted above had specific designs. Shortly before and then after the Second World War, Scandinavian and German designers very successfully used cane (in different patterns to the traditional six-way pattern) in many new designs of chairs (see figure 8). 

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Figure 5. First period: 1660-1730. Chair, c.1710. Chair re-caned by author. Image courtesy of author.


Figure 6. Second period: 1790-1820. Chair, c.1810. Note the carved rope which acknowledges the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Chair re-caned by author. Image courtesy of author.


Figure 7. Third period: 1850-1920. Typical Victorian chair made in the thousands in High Wycombe. Chair re-caned by author. Image courtesy of author.


Figure 8. Fourth period: 1920-1950. First designed in 1927 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and still in production by Thonet Mundus. Chair re-caned by author. Image courtesy of author.

It is relevant to note that while Holland has been assumed by some to be the original European centre for the demand and making of caned chairs in the late seventeenthand early eighteenth centuries, it was only in England that the production of caned chairs became a major industry during the period under consideration. 

Furniture making in England, was initially located predominately in and around St Paul’s Churchyard, London.  Initially caned chairs were of plain design, but improved carving and quality also meant that they were bought for more fashionable homes and the royal palaces.  More significantly, after the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed 13,000 houses the demand for affordable and light furniture, such as caned furniture, grew.  Consequently the manufacture of this type of furniture grew quickly and developing into an important trade. The specific trades of cane chair maker and chair caner evolved to become major crafts within the City of London, satisfying the market for every day and high quality caned chairs.[2]

Significant quantities of the caned chairs made in London were exported, causing indignation amongst upholsterers, for their traditional export trade suffered as a consequence of this new fashion.  This loss of trade was so great, that in the late seventeenth century upholsterers submitted two petitions to Parliament to enable them to recover their lost trade by stopping the chair caners exporting, but both petitions were unsuccessful.[3]   At the same time as caned chair makers were exporting their products, chairs made to European designs were being made in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China, mainly for the use of Europeans living in these locations.  

When staff of the EIC, Army and many other professions moved from England to foreign destinations they took furniture with them for use both in the ship’s cabin and also in their new home.[4]   On arrival they often had more furniture made by local artisans to match the English designs, with chairs having caned seats which were more comfortable in hot climates.[5] However, chairs made to English designs (often embellished with local decoration and materials) were expensive and mainly designed for wealthy officers of the EIC and similar clients, rather than the larger expatriate market.  Staff returning to England would typically sell their furniture locally and use their ‘private trade’ allowance for more desirable items to sell at a profit on returning to England.  Surprisingly there are examples of persons bringing low value goods with them, including rattans.[6]

An interesting development was in the provision of ‘Campaign Furniture’ enabling persons to enjoy a similar standard of living as they would at home.  With the major growth during the period in those travelling to all parts of the British Empire and other parts of the world (civil servants, business men, engineers and the EIC), there was a need for furniture designed to be light and collapsible.  Most furniture makers and retailers in London, including high quality suppliers, saw this as a significant opportunity and were very inventive in the designs they evolved.  To achieve lightness and for comfort in hot and humid climates, cane panels were used in all manner of items, for example chairs, cots and beds.[7]


Figure 9. Child’s Cot assembled for use. Courtesy of Christopher Clarke (Antiques) Ltd, Stow on the Wold.


Figure 10. Child’s cot dismantled for transport. Courtesy of Christopher Clarke (Antiques) Ltd, Stow on the Wold.

Around 1680 the first imported examples of caned chairs made in England appeared in North America following fashions in England.  As a result, local and immigrant craftsmen on the east coast of America were soon adopting the concept of caned chairs.  While chair designs initially followed European forms, they developed their own unique styles using local timbers.[8]  

The EIC was given a monopoly on all English Trade to the east of the Cape of Good Hope – which the company eventually stretched to cover the whole globe, for example they would be later trading for furs in Vancouver.  There is no record in the Customs Records of Exports, of exporting rattans from London to the North American colonies although the records show exports to many other locations, mainly in Europe.[9]  After the ‘Boston Tea Party’ in 1773 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, American ships were then free to sail the world in search of commerce.[10]  Caned furniture made on the east coast of America, initially used cane imported as whole rattan (often in whaling ships), but rattan processors and furniture manufacturers then built their own fleets of ships specifically for trade from Canton.   A new design of caned furniture was developed based on Chinese chair designs and willow furniture made by German immigrants, known as ‘Wicker furniture’.  This used the whole rattan as the frame and included panels of woven cane and other embellishments, at times becoming very ornate.


Figure 11. American wicker chair made of whole rattan, wood and caning around 1895 by the Wakefield Company. Copyright Kit Latham.

The trades making caned chairs remained in London for over 150 years   At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, furniture making moved to High Wycombe as transport links improved and demand became too great for makers in London.  Initially a cottage industry, caned chair making soon developed into a large industrial manufacturing activity.There was already a tradition of furniture making in High Wycombe entirely in wood, utilising large areas of beech forest in the locality.  These important resources of wood and furniture making skills provided the basis for producing caned furniture. The caned panels in such furniture were all woven by hand and, despite production becoming a factory scale environment, the weaving of cane was still undertaken entirely by hand, initially in the homes of residents of the town.[11] It was in this location that a small number of alternative cane weaving patterns were devised which were quicker to weave, but they had limited success due to being unstable in use.

The bulk of caned furniture made from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century was for the mass markets in the United Kingdom, particularly the rapidly developing Industrial North.  However, the makers of high quality caned furniture remained in London, with the particular exception of Gillows who continued to produce very high-quality caned furniture throughout the period in Lancaster where they were originally established and later in London.[12] 

It was not until Michael Thonet developed bentwood furniture (most of which was caned) into a very major industry in Austria and Eastern Europe from 1845, that England ceased to be the major European producer of caned furniture.  Despite the innovative techniques devised by Thonet to bend solid wood in three dimensions, it was principally the development of machine-processed rattan (in Hamburg) and improved rail connections through Europe, that turned caned bentwood furniture into a very major international industry.

Worldwide demand for caned furniture after 1850 was remarkable, when coupled with developments in the industrial manufacture of chair frames developed in various European and American locations.  This applied particularly to the bentwood chair patented by Michael Thonet in Austria and American Wicker chair makers, who both exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.  Production of traditional caned chairs continued on a large scale in England until the start of the First World War, coming to an end in the 1920s. There was an attempt to revive the use of rattan in 1907 which continued after the First World War, by Dryad of Leicester, coming to an end in the 1930s as fashions changed and new materials became available.  They initially adopted the American wicker chair concepts but soon changed to German and Austrian designs which used ‘centre cane’ (the core of the rattan palm tree vines) in a closely woven pattern similar to that used in basketmaking.[13] This style of caned furniture has been recently revived.

A new technique to weave cane by machine which was then locked into a groove, was devised in USA in the mid-nineteenth century.[14]  Machine woven cane was not generally used in Europe until after the Second World War.  Virtually all modern caned furniture now uses this technique – sometimes doctored to look like hand woven caning.

In certain periods (particularly the Regency period), cushions were used on the cane seat either as a part of the design or for comfort.  Cane panels were also used in chairs as springing under upholstery before the advent of steel coil springs and examples are found in a few high quality chairs.[15] Whilst the use of cane in woven seat panels normally comprises one layer for seating purposes, in locations where the seat will be used in differing weather climates, two layers of seating are provided using a reversible seat frame – a caned layer for hot climates and leather on the reverse face for cold climates.[16]

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[1] Antony Wild, The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600 (2000), pp. 64-5.

[2] H. H. Bobart, Records of the Basketmakers’ Company (1911), p. 55. 

[3] R. W. Symonds, ‘English Cane Chairs’, The Antique Collector, (1937).  Also see R. W. Symonds, ‘English Cane Chairs Part 1’, Connoisseur, (1951), which details the content of the petitions.

[4] A. Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon (2001), p. 95.

[5]E. T. Joy, ‘The Overseas Trade in Furniture in the nineteenth century’, Furniture History Society, 6 (1970), p. 66.

[6] H. B. Morse, Britain and the China Trade Vol. 1 (1926), p. 196.

[7] N. A. Brawer, British Campaign Furniture: Elegance under Canvas 1740-1914 (2001). 

[8] Benno M. Forman, American Seating Furniture (1988), p. 236. Here Forman indicates that the first caned chair was

made in America around 1689.

[9] The Author has analysed import and export of rattans to and from London and other UK ports detailed in

the Customs records 1697 – 1869 held at the National Record Office, Kew, typically referenced ‘Cust 3’ for

each year.  The source was noted as ‘East Indies’ but after 1780, specific ports of origin were identified. 

[10] J. Adamson, American Wicker (1993), p. 18.

[11] L. J. Mayes, The History of Chair Making in High Wycombe (1960). 

[12] S. E. Stuart, Gillows of Lancaster and London, 1730-1840 (2008). 

[13] Pat Kirkham, Harry Peach (1986).  Kirkham’s volume explores the story of Harry Peach and ‘Dryad’, his venture into

cane chairs.

[14] ‘A completed century 1826-1926: The story of Heywood-Wakefield Company’, The Company (1926), pp. 15-16. This

article discusses the invention of machinery to weave cane by William Houston, a Scotsman from Paisley, and

machines to cut the peel from the whole rattan whilst preserving the core intact.

[15] L. Wood, The Upholstered Furniture in the Lady Lever Art Gallery (2008).  

[16] B. Crossley, ‘Maritime Caned Chairs’, Regional Furniture Society Newsletter, 58 (2013), p. 4.  This type of chair was

installed during a refit on the RRS Discovery used in polar exploration.