The Cleveland Rocker, a Unique Piece of Texana
The most prolific piece of furniture produced in Texas was the chair. Usually this meant simple, slat backed and rawhide seats similar to those made in the Appalachian Mountains since the early 1800s. This form extended all across the South. More elegant chair forms were produced by highly skilled craftsmen such as cabinetmakers and carriage makers. Principle examples of these fine furnishings include rocking chairs as well as parlor chairs. Parlor chairs, according to the book: Texas Furniture, The Cabinetmakers and Their Work, 1840-1880; were made mostly by German and Austrian immigrants. Their work can be recognized from the Biedermeier forms, which expressed clean lines and minimal ornamentation in an understated elegance which grew out of middle class utilitarianism.
Rocking chairs tended to be in the ‘Voltaire’ style, meaning a low seat and high back and were used in bedrooms, sitting rooms and on porches by women. Men did not typically use rocking chairs, they preferred to lean. Makers of these chairs were more often than not transplants from the United States, usually the South. The Heritage Society’s Cleveland Rocker is a-typical, because it was made by a carriage maker from Ohio instead of the South. The molded arms, scrolled terminals and tapered stiles demonstrated an uncommon level of style and skill of the maker. The arrow arm supports are similar to late Windsor chairs of the 1820s and 30s. The ‘Cleveland Rocker’ harkened back to previous styles because no Texas tradition yet existed. It is the earliest known Texas-made rocking chair, being made in 1842.
The original owner of this chair was Sarah S. Cleveland and it was generously donated to The Heritage Society by her great great granddaughter, –Mrs. Virginia Kirkland Innis of Houston. Sarah Cleveland and her husband Ezra lived in Austin from at least 1850 through 1880. Their son William D. Cleveland moved to Houston where he opened the Cleveland Grocery and Warehouse business that made him a millionaire. W.D. Cleveland married Justina Latham, the daughter of a prominent Houston family. He likely brought the chair with him to Houston as well and embellished it with a silver plaque commemorating his mother. The plaque reads, “Made for my mother by Jno. Lee at Travis, Austin Co. 1842.”
The maker of the rocking chair, Jno. Lee, is John C. Lee who was born in Ohio in 1813. John came to Texas with his brother and two sisters. John’s older brother, Joseph is a well-known and prominent early Texan, having been a leader in the Archive War between Houston and Austin. He also served President Lamar as Travis County Chief Justice, among other accomplishments. Joseph’s portrait still hangs in the State Capitol. The two Lee brothers were both trained as carpenters and also knew their father’s business as a carriage maker. John is known to have established a business as a carriage maker in Burleson County, Texas in the 1840’s. Some chair makers travelled as itinerant craftsmen from community to community during the summer and returned to their shop during the winter to make more parts. This may have been the case with John Lee making the Cleveland Rocker in Travis.
Learn more about Texas Furniture and see the Cleveland Rocker in the book: Texas Furniture; The Cabinetmakers and Their Work as well as online at the William H. Hill Artisans and Artists Archive.