Our treasures: striking balloon back chairs for children to sit in

The balloon-backed chairs with upholstered seats in red velvet came to the museum of “Glorat”, the Clarke Homestead, adjacent to Kiwi North.

Remember the “seen but not heard” edict? I’m sure the more mature among us have been given such a warning.

The Victorian era was full of similar catchy little phrases designed to keep children in their place.

The Whangārei Museum in Kiwi North holds a number of pieces of furniture intended for use by children. There are two eye-catching balloon-backed chairs with red velvet upholstered seats that have come to the museum from “Glorat”, the Clarke Homestead, adjacent to Kiwi North.

The children's chairs are made of oak, the backrest is circular in two parts to adapt to the curve, with a flower carving on the upper part of the backrest.
The children’s chairs are made of oak, the backrest is circular in two parts to adapt to the curve, with a flower carving on the upper part of the backrest.

They were donated to the museum by B Tanner, granddaughter of James McLean Clarke.

Dr. Clarke had commissioned the construction of the farm in 1886 on 232 acres in Maunu, intending to cultivate and run his medical practice from the farm.

Many pieces of furniture would have accompanied the family when they arrived from England, including the small red velvet chairs.

Tanner remembers the chairs being in the living room adjacent to the front door of the farmhouse. In Victorian times, the drawing room would have been used only on special occasions or to welcome visitors.

The chairs are made of oak, the backrest is circular in two parts to adapt to the curve, with a sculpture of flowers on the upper part of the backrest. There are also carvings where the chair legs meet the seat.

The back of the chair is circular in two parts to accommodate the curve, with a flower sculpture on the upper part of the back.
The back of the chair is circular in two parts to accommodate the curve, with a flower sculpture on the upper part of the back.

The red velvet shows little wear. I suspect they may have been covered up at some point. The original seat padding would have been horsehair. The silk braid, a little faded, conceals the place where the velvet has been nailed.

Balloon back chairs were a popular style in the early Victorian era from about 1845, initially designed as dining chairs. However, their upright style was more suited to formal living room furniture, and they fell out of favor as a dining room chair.

Dining chairs developed into a more casual style in the later years of the Victorian era. A balloon-backed adult chair usually had a bracing piece of wood midway between the top of the chair back and the seat.

Children’s furniture tended to be largely miniature versions of adult size and paid little attention to the comfort and needs of younger users. In the Art Deco period, from 1920, health and safety became more important, especially with regard to children’s furniture.

People like Maria Montessori began to design furniture more suitable for use by young people, especially in the field of education.

It is interesting to think about how behaviors have changed in many areas of our lives. The modern house usually does not have a living room, children do not have to sit quietly on straight chairs while adults converse. Although Christmas and the school holidays are just around the corner, parents may secretly yearn for a quieter time.