A Mostly Legendary Chair

Image from the Author

The chair in all its glory

We all have those items in our homes – that piece with a story behind it. Perhaps it’s the marvelous mid-century buffet gifted to you by your fabulously scandalous aunt Gigi – who ran off to marry an astronaut and ended up being one of the original Playboy Bunnies. Or great-great-great grandma Clementine’s gorgeous Victorian dining table – Grandma Clemmie passed through Ellis Island at 13 with only the clothes on her back and a turnip; going on to marry a wealthy banker and campaigning for women’s suffrage. These heirlooms hold pride of place in your home and their stories have regaled your guests over the years.

Whether the story is shared in whispered giggles or repeated with pride, most of us have something, somewhere that carries a tale. A little nugget of information that creates the story of us, of our families – helping to shape who we are today.

For me, it’s a Craftsman Morris chair. I love this chair. It has followed me since I graduated from college and had my first adult home. With it’s clean lines and welcoming spirit, it’s the chair most of my guests pick to sit in. I’ve reupholstered it a few times, initially covered it in a fairly gruesome flowered pink chintz a la Laura Ashley (amazing how one’s taste changes and improves over the years!) to now being covered in a warm taupe micro-suede with a softly hued silk cord border – much more in keeping with the period and feel of the piece.

What is a Morris chair? What is the story surrounding this specific chair? Let’s take a quick stroll through the public and private history of this piece, shall we?

Image courtesy:  Alice H. Dial/family archives

Wilomena Vonderheide – look at the small waist!


What you are about to read is mainly, primarily, mostly true. Family lore being what it is, there has been a certain amount of embellishment and creative gap filling. The cast of characters are/were real. The situation was mainly real, but their antics and eccentricities were enhanced dependent upon how much Barbera the interviewer (me) and the interviewee/family historian (my fabulous mother) had imbibed. Enjoy and thank you for your kind attention.

Take a Seat | Two Furniture Makers, The Chair and Three Sisters

The Morris chair was created by the British furniture makers Morris & Co. in the mid-1800’s from a design by Ephraim Coleman , as the first recliner. The original chair design and structure includes a broad and deep seat, higher than average arm rests and a brace and rod set up on the back support so the chair can be made to recline. An ottoman was frequently paired with a Morris chair to get the full lounge lizard effect. Voila! The “couch” potato is born. One could read, nap, think big thoughts or simply laze about in total comfort. Perfect. Early Morris chairs were simply turned in the Arts and Crafts style, though the cushions were frequently covered in ornate fabrics, in keeping with the preferred aesthetic of the time.

Image courtesy of Alice H. Dial/family archives

Caroline Vonderheide – she was tiny!

Needless to say, the chairs were quite popular.

Gustav Stickley brought the Morris chair to this country at the turn of the 19th century – producing them in the iconic American Craftsman style. It was during the early 20th century that the Morris chair took off, finding a spot in many homes. Soon, everyone was producing all manner of “Morris” chairs! From the expensive Stickley’s to the more cost conscious options in the Sears Catalog – households in almost all social spheres could enjoy the comforts of a reclining Morris chair. It was a good thing. The chair in this story is unmarked, so I am assuming it was home-made or purchased from a small manufacturer.

This is where the three sisters come in. Back in the 1900’s, there were three three beautiful sisters – Wilomena, Louise and Caroline Vonderheide. These Gibson Girl-esque beauties were my great, great aunts. Now, Minnie and Louise both married – Minnie married the devilishly handsome James (Jim) Cassidy, a young man known for his good looks, bowler hat and fondness for adult beverages, more on this later. BUT! The beauteous Caroline never married. She couldn’t find a gentleman worthy of her – not that she didn’t have ample opportunity, mind you. She was very independent and unusual for her day, a career woman, with a responsible position at Hulman & Co. for many years – aunt Carrie had her own money, her own things and was generally a happenin’ chick. I believe I channel aunt Carrie!

Even though Carrie was quite capable, independent and apparently feisty – because times were as they were, she wasn’t allowed to live alone.

Take a Seat | Great, Great Uncle John, The Chair and The Drink

Because a woman wasn’t able to live alone with out falling into ruin, Carrie moved into the Cassidy family home. This two story, wooden frame house was occupied by her sister and brother-in-law, Minnie and Jim Cassidy. Also in residence was great, great Uncle John Cassidy who was, please note: a bachelor gentleman. And attractive. Wore a bowler hat. Is reputed to have affected a walking stick. He also drank a bit. Note: actual occupants of this house at this time are not 100% certain – see initial disclaimer – Minnie and Jim are NOT confirmed as living there whilst John and Carrie did, it’s all a bit murky. But we’ll assume for propriety’s sake.

 Image courtesy:  Alice H. Dial/family archives

The devilishly handsome Jim Cassidy sans famous bowler hat. But check out the collar!

There were three bedrooms. Assuming Minnie and Jim shared a room…….

Our 21st century minds almost immediately conjure the most scandalous of set ups – one in which Jim, Minnie, John and Carrie end up as million plus hit YouTube sensations, breaking the internet. But, in a simpler, less trashy time, this arrangement was fairly common and socially acceptable. Carrie doesn’t fall into ruin and Jim and John have another female to take care of them, everyone wins! In a turn of the century, less gender equality-focused type win, that is.

On with the story!

According to family lore, uncle John enjoyed cigars and whiskey. Aunt Carrie enjoyed neither nor enjoyed others enjoying such things in the house. More murk, since uncle Jim drank too, yet this chair is attached to uncle John and his bad habits. For the sake of argument and simplicity, I’ll just say reference the YouTube/broken internet comments, letting the readers draw their own conclusions. (Leaving the lawn chair in the basement mystery and Sonka Cafe scandal for some other time).

Enter the Morris chair.

The lovely chair that now graces my living room was uncle John’s refuge and purportedly positioned in the dining room, next to the basement door. It was THE ONLY PLACE IN THE HOUSE he could enjoy his two vices – no where else. Period. This is his spot – his 1900’s man cave. He must have spent ample time in this chair, as it is said he “died of the drink”. Now, there’s argument that TB killed him and/or it was uncle Jim who died of the drink. But, for this telling, we’ll stick with John and the drink.

Image courtesy:  Alice H. Dial/family archives

The bowler hat wearing, handsome John Cassidy

The Fearsome Foursome lived some years together in this house, with this chair. Uncle John died in the mid-50’s, so aunt Carrie lived alone in the house for quite awhile. I distinctly remember visiting aunt Carrie in the house as a very small girl – it was a magical place! Smelling of mothballs, cedar and lavender. Beautiful stained glass windows, Art Nouveau fixtures, Tiffany lamps and heavy furniture. She was a slightly cantankerous, though kindly lady in dark, rusty, old fashioned dresses and lace up shoes. I found her fascinating and always wanted to walk to her house when visiting my grandparents, who lived a couple blocks away. I’d love to have her wardrobe today as well as some of the things from the house – a veritable treasure trove! Aunt Carrie died in 1977. The chair came to live with me in 1987 and has been a part of my small family ever since.

Side note: Cleaning out the Cassidy family home in 1977 was an adventure – it involved a myriad of musty trunks, a spooky attic, a huge ball of tin foil, bags marked “pieces of string too short to save” and the discovery of uncle John’s GOLD TEETH. Yes, all of them – roots and all. A most excellent story that must eventually be told.

Image courtesy:  Alice H. Dial/family archives

Carrie Vonderheide rocking a gorgeous hat!

I’ve often wondered what all this Morris chair has witnessed throughout it’s long life. Sitting stoically through two world wars, the Great Depression, the hilarity of the “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio show, the relief and joy of VE and VJ Day. I sat in this chair the morning of September 11th. At least one of my amazing cousins have perched in it while watching our favorite movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – laughing until we almost cried.. I’ve practiced presentations with this chair as my audience – rehearsed conversations with my boss, parents or friends. The chair absorbing it all, keeping it safe.

The stories it could tell!

To our dear readers: do you have a mostly legendary chair in your home?

The author would like to thank her mother, Alice Dial for her patience, wisdom and humor in this and all things. Also, Wikipedia.com, 1stdibs.com, history.com and those who post their images freely on the Internet.

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