Sharing the Common Wealth showcases objects, artifacts, documents, structures and buildings from the collections of PHMC.
Side chair owned by William Penn. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Side chair owned by William Penn. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Pennsylvania founder and first proprietor William Penn lived in his colony for a total of only four years during two trips of two years each, 1682-84 and 1699-1701. Even before his first visit he had engaged his agent to purchase from the Lenapes land along the Delaware River that would become Pennsbury Manor, intended to be his permanent summer home in America. As fate would have it, however, Penn lived at Pennsbury only sporadically over two summers, starting in June 1700, with second wife Hannah, daughter Letitia and newborn son John, before returning to England to settle threats of his losing proprietorship of Pennsylvania.

The original house at Pennsbury Manor was furnished in the English fashion of the day that came to be known as William & Mary, after the coregents on the throne of England who favored the style in their court. This c. 1690 beechwood and cane side chair, which probably arrived in America with Penn on his second trip, exhibits characteristics of William & Mary design, including the high back, restrained carving, turned stiles and legs, and caning in the back and seat for better comfort.

According to Todd Galle, curator at Pennsbury Manor historic site, this particular side chair was more crudely executed than the furniture at Penn’s estate at Warminghurst, Sussex, in England. “It would make sense for Penn to send over less than the best quality furniture, because it would have to survive an Atlantic crossing in a 17th-century vessel through who knows what type of weather. Why risk the good stuff when some cheaper sets could be acquired for setting up house in the wilderness of Pennsylvania?”

Chairs of this sort were often sold in sets that contained two arm chairs and four armless side chairs. They were used with what were called gateleg tables, which featured hinged legs that could swing out like gates to support drop leaves that could be raised to expand the table’s surface. When planning social affairs, genteel English families, such as the Penns, typically arranged a number of gateleg tables around a room to seat several smaller clusters of people rather than one large group at a single big table.

After her husband’s death, Hannah Penn, with no plans to take up residence at Pennsbury, directed the family agent in Philadelphia, James Logan, to auction off the contents of the deteriorating estate. The side chair was presumably among the furnishings sold.

Painted directly on the back of the chair are notes of provenance, with one at the top indicating that it belonged to William Penn. Apparently after being auctioned by Logan, the chair, according to another note, “was for over 60 years in possession of the Attleboro Library Co. of Bucks County.” Then it was “presented to the Philda. Sanitary Fair by Mr. George Justice.” Sanitary fairs were organized by civilians during the Civil War to raise funds for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a federal agency that aided wounded soldiers. Finally, the last note says the chair was purchased at the fair by W.S. Vaux in June 1864.

The chair remained in Vaux’s family for a century and a half until 2015, when they donated it to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. It is now in the collection at Pennsbury Manor with two other Penn family objects, a c. 1650 dressing box that belonged to Penn’s first wife, Gulielma, and a pewter serving tray, or charger, which William and Hannah gave to their steward at Pennsbury as a wedding gift in 1701 before they departed from Pennsylvania, never to return.


Kyle R. Weaver is the editor of Pennsylvania Heritage.