Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Thomas Jefferson Randolph; by descent to Caroline Ramsay Randolph; by bequest to R.T.W. Duke; by descent to Mary and Helen Duke; by purchase to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1951
Accession Number: 1951-2
Historical Notes: While serving as secretary of state in New York in 1790, Jefferson purchased a good deal of furniture from local cabinetmakers, particularly Thomas Burling, who had a shop on Beekman Street. In his memorandum book, Jefferson carefully recorded two payments totaling £143 to Burling in July and August 1790 but did not identify his purchases. Among other articles, Jefferson evidently acquired a sofa and a revolving chair. The attribution of both sofa and chair to Burling is based upon a very similar chair, now at Mount Vernon, that Burling made for President Washington.1 He called it an "Uncomn Chr" and paid £7 for it in 1790.2
Although Washington eluded the enmity of the Federalist critic William Loughton Smith, Jefferson did not escape ridicule for his politics and his chair. Smith wrote, "Who has not heard from the Secretary the praises of his wonderful Whirligig Chair, which had the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head, without moving his tail?"3
The source for the design appears to be French. Jefferson certainly was familiar with the concave fauteuil de bureau, the prevailing form for desk chairs during the Louis XVI period, typically upholstered in leather.4 The comte de Moustier, who sold many of his furnishings to Washington, may have owned such a chair. The general contour also foreshadows the concave easy chairs later made fashionable in America by French-influenced Thomas Sheraton and his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, but the origin of the design is more likely to have been French than English.
The idea to combine a revolving chair with a fauteuil de bureau might have been hatched by Jefferson, whose penchant for mechanical apparatuses is well known, but no documentation exists to prove his authorship of the Burling-made chairs. He already owned a revolving Windsor, then at Monticello, that he purchased in Philadelphia during the 1770s. The turning mechanism on this chair is similar to the others, which might suggest Jefferson's involvement with the later design.
The revolving chairs enjoyed by Washington and Jefferson are much alike, except that Jefferson's is more than a foot taller. The back on Jefferson's is higher, and the legs on Washington's have been shortened. The chairs have the same kind of turning mechanisms. The upper part of the seat pivots on a spindle supported by four rollers on each of the tops of the legs. The heavy legs on Jefferson's chair terminate in applied spade feet.
1. Before Burling made the revolving chair for Washington, he made an elaborate tambour writing desk that cost £74 in November 1789. He also may have made twelve chairs very much like the shield-back ones that Jefferson acquired in New York. "Sundries bot on account of George Washington," November 20, 1789-1795, National Archives and Records Service, 45681.