My grandfather’s chair

What can I say about my maternal grandfather John Schwab that won’t make me tear up?  I loved the guy. I still do. He was one of the first heroes in my life.

He was a very unassuming guy who lived in in Fairview, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan.  He ran a dairy. The big treat for us was to sleep over at our grandparent’s house, wake up early and go to the dairy to ‘work’ with him.  My older brother would get up early and ride in with him, doing some deliveries.  My grandmother would drive my younger brother and me in later, once the sun was up and we had a chance to eat breakfast. My grandfather would do most of the work, selling milk and cream to people who walked into the dairy. We would either help him taste chocolate milk or ice cream.

Bottles from his dairy

The other great memory I had of the dairy was watching him do his books. He would sit at a big desk on this stout wooden oak chair and count the money, occasionally stopping to give each of us a piece of Bazooka gum and read us the comics that came along with the pieces. He had a huge pile of old silver coins under his desk calendar – he was keeping them to give to each of us in the future.

My grandfather passed away in 1986 – the start of my senior year of high school. His loss was very difficult for me, as we were both very close. As my senior year went on and my grandmother was going through his property, I was given three very special things of his.  The first was his watch.  The only one he ever wore. The one I learned to tell time by looking at.  The second was one of his Schwab’s Dairy delivery jackets.  An Ike-style jacket with the dairy’s name embroidered on the back. The third was his oak desk chair from the dairy.

I very ham-handedly attempted to refinish the chair back in the summer of 1987 before I went off to college, and brought it with me.  I did my homework sitting on it, and it moved with me from Maryland to Florida. It was the chair we used at our computer desk for years, until one of the original rubber wheels delaminated on it, preventing it from rolling.  I put the chair out in the garage and vowed that one day I was going to repair it.  But, it sat out there, collecting dust for more than two years.

This weekend, I finally was motivated enough to head to the local home improvement store to buy a set of new wheels.  While I had the chair up on my bench, I started to notice some things about the old chair that I had never truly seen before…

It’s a very austere looking desk chair that has seen a tremendous amount of service. The piece is plain, yet graceful in its simplicity. On the back rail is a maker’s mark – the Johnson Chair Company of Chicago. From what I have been able to learn, the Johnson Chair Company built Mission-style chairs from the 1890s through the 1930s.

The chair has a beautifully sculpted seat that’s very comfortable to sit in. It also has two large side rails with five gently bent splat pieces that rise from the seat to the curved crest rail. There are two bent pieces that help to anchor the side rails to the seat. One of them has a split on it and lost its glued plug.

The undercarriage of the chair is very interesting.  When I had the piece flipped up on my bench, I could see how the legs were attached to the central column of the chair. The four legs radiate out from a cast iron base, which is threaded through to allow the height adjusting rod to screw up or down, allowing he user to set the height of the chair exactly where they want.  The action is smooth, and requires a little work to operate. But, once it’s set, it holds the adjustment very well.  The legs themselves are joined through a massive mending plate on the bottom of the chair, with beefy screws holding to the iron inner workings and each leg. The space between each of the legs is filled with a thin piece of bent oak, which slips into a pair of kerfs cut into the base of the legs. One of these is missing on the chair, but the three others are in very good shape.

The seat adjustment control determines how easily you can rock the seat backward. It consists of a hefty iron handle that screws into the workings of the adjustment device.  Screw the handle in, and a coiled spring in the back gets stretched, making it more difficult to rock backward on the chair. I had never noticed how massive the control was until I had it up on the bench.

Once I fixed the broken wheel on the caster, I wiped all of the cast iron pieced down to clean them, and then wiped them again with a silicone lubricant to allow easy movement of the pieces. I also took the opportunity to carefully clean all of the dust off the piece and vacuumed the thing spotless.  After I wheeled it into the house, I made a decision. Something this important to me doesn’t belong out in the shop or at the home office… I am going to bring it to my desk at work and replace my 12 year old chair that’s getting more uncomfortable by the day.

And, when I’m sitting on the same chair my grandfather worked at, I’ll get inspiration to work harder to be more like him….


11 thoughts on “My grandfather’s chair”

  1. Beautiful piece, Tom. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story. I’ll visit your grandfather’s chair – and you, if you are in it – at work soon.

  2. Tom: I have an almost identical chair that I’ve had for almost 60 years. Several years ago the tension spring broke and I’ve been unable to find a replacement. The hardware is identical to the tension and height hordware in you pics. My chair is pretty much the same except that it has arms. If you know of any chair spring source, please let me know. Thanks, Tom K.

  3. Thanks for all the pictures! I just bought one if these with arms, and with a broken spring mechanism. I have had a bit of trouble visualizing how it was supposed to work — with your picture of the undercarriage, it’s clear.

    I am on the trail of a replacement spring. Quite pricey — $40+ with delivery charge included, and I am not sure it will work. But worth a try. I will let Tom K know if it works.

  4. Thank you for that lovely post. My grandfather AP Johnson founded the Johnson Chair Company and both my father and grandfather were presidents of it at various times. I’ve seen a few of the pieces but not many. Nice to read your observations and see the connection with your grandfather

  5. I have an armchair, very comfortable, that I bought from a consignment store in Kingman, AZ and it has the metal label on the back of the seat piece with made by Johnson Chair Company Chicago, USA. It is dark wood and it is heavy and well made. My husband and I don’t want to refinish or change the looks of the original look since it is an armchair that is comfortable to sit in and only needs to have the wood cleaned up and some of the bottom structure needs to be reglued to make it like new. Thought you might like to know about the style we have.

  6. Is it possible to get any information about the men who made chairs att this company?
    I’m looking for information about my grandfather Sven Tornquist fr.o.m. Sweden. He worked at the factory.
    Looking forward to hear fr.o.m you!
    Sincerely brithmari Andersson

  7. My father recently passed away at 91. We were reviewing some of the family history. His mother was Grace Johnson, born around 1902 in Chicago. Her father was one of the sons of Andrew P. Johnson founder of the company. He emigrated from Voss, Norway in 1850 at age 15. We had some information from a book: “A Century of Urban Life: The Norwegians in Chicago before 1930”. The book said the company had 500 employees around 1900, and a large workforce of mostly Norwegian boys and young men that A.P. Johnson sponsored their immigration to America and gave them a job. Your grandfather may have very well came over in that wave of Scandanavian immigrants. They made very good quality chairs and desks.

  8. I have three arm chairs from the Johnson Chair Co. I’ve been looking for more because they are the best sitting chairs I’ve ever had. Thanks for the information.

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