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    Elastic Chair Patent in Special Collections
    by Johlene Hess, Co-Editor

    Samuel Gragg was an important early American furniture maker and designer living and working in Boston in the early 1800's.  He designed and patented what he termed an "elastic chair" in 1808.  The elastic chair, more commonly recognized as bent wood, was an exciting and innovative achievement of the time.  In 2002, the Winterthur Museum in Delaware began research for an exhibit on Samuel Gragg's elastic chairs, which would culminate in a traveling exhibition.  In gathering information about Samuel Gragg and his chairs, museum researchers learned that the United States patent office burned in 1836, destroying the government's copy of the 1808 elastic chair patent.  The specifics of the patent were limited to a government report of patent issued between 1790 and 1836.  Examples of the elastic chair were found, but not an original detailed description of the chairs and production methods.  As their research continued, an Internet search turned up a citation for a Samuel Gragg patent in JMU Library's Special Collections.  Surprisingly, JMU's Special Collections holds what is likely Gragg's own personal copy of the patent.

    Located in the collection SC #2099 James Madison Memorabilia, the Samuel Gragg patent is written on two sheets of parchment, and contains a description of the elastic chair and sofa.  It is signed by Thomas Jefferson, President and James Madison, Secretary of State.  It also contains a business card of Samuel Gragg.  This document was part of a group of items entitled "Madison Memorabilia" that formed the initial inventory for Special Collections in 1982.  An undated, unsigned typescript inventory accompanied the items.  This inventory stated that the patent was presented to Madison College on July 27, 1938 by Kappa Delta Pi, the National Honor Society in Education. 

    Carrier Library loaned the patent to the Winterthur Museum for the duration of their exhibit on Samuel Gragg's elastic chair, which ran from March 6 to June 15, 2003.  The exhibit then traveled to the Milwaukee Art Museum in July 2003, and to Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, in November 2003.   The patent is now back in its home in Special Collections.  

    For an excellent article on the craftsmanship of this chair, written by the senior furniture conservator at Winterthur Museum, see:

    Podmaniczky, Michael. "The Incredible Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg." Magazine Antiques 165 (May 2003): 138-146.

                    

         Gragg Elastic Chairs, photographs courtesy Winterthur Museum                      

    E-mail comments and questions to:
    leidinrm@jmu.edu

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