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Campeachy Chair

Campeachy Chair View Interactive Version ]

In his later years Jefferson was most comfortable in a Campeachy chair. When suffering from a serious attack of rheumatism at Poplar Forest, Jefferson specifically requested a siesta, or Campeachy, chair

While too weak to sit up the whole day, and afraid to increase the weakness by lying down, I long for a Siesta chair which would have admitted the medium position. I must therefore pray you to send by Henry the one made by Johnny Hemmings. . . . John or Wormly should wrap it well with a straw rope, and then bowed up in a blanket.1

Ellen Randolph Coolidge, a granddaughter, recollected that she often saw him reclining in one at Monticello:

"In the large parlour, with it's [sic] parquetted floor, stood the Campeachy chair made of goatskin, sent to him from New Orleans, where in the shady twilight, I was wont to see him resting.2

The unusual form of this chair, variously called a lolling chair, siesta chair, sling-seat armchair, hammock chair, Spanish chair, or Campeachy, had its origins in ancient Egypt. Versions of the design with its characteristic x-shaped stretchers were known in ancient Greece and Rome, and were fashionable in France and Spain during the seventeenth century. The Campeachy form that was popular in New Orleans was apparently derived from Spanish sources. The name Campeachy is an anglicized spelling of Campeche, a Mexican state, where a kind of mahogany called bloodwood or logwood was grown that was often used to make the chair.

Although it is not known how or where Jefferson first saw a Campeachy, he tried to obtain several in 1808. He wrote to William Brown, ". . . the Campeachy hammock, as made of some vegetable substance netted, is commonly to be had in New Orleans. . . I take the liberty of asking you to procure me a couple of them."3 Brown ordered purchased and shipped three chairs, but these were lost at sea. The three chairs were intended for Jefferson, Thomas Mann Randolph, and Eliza House Trist. "The hammocks from Campeachy were sent on in the month of October so William Brown wrote to Mrs. Trist, directed to you, but she has never heard of their arrival." 4 Ten days later Jefferson reported to his daughter that ". . . the Schooner Sampson, Capt. Smith, with the Campeachy hammocks etc. . . .has never been heard of since."5

Ten years later, Jefferson finally obtained his long-awaited New Orleans Campeachy chair. Thomas Bolling Robertson, a native Virginian who was then a representative to Congress from Louisiana, told his father in June 1819, "I have sent by the North Star. . . for Richmond a Campeachy chair. I have sent one also to Mr. Jefferson; he asked me many years ago to procure him one."6 The chair was shipped in August.7 Once it arrived, Jefferson thanked Robertson for his effort, "Age, its infirmities & frequent illnesses have rendered indulgence in that easy kind of chair truly acceptable."8

Seven Campeachy chairs with a Monticello association are mentioned in various documents; two chairs descended in the family, four were sold at the 1827 Dispersal Sale, and a fifth was given to given to Peachy Gilmer in 1821. Of these, five are known today.

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to John H. Burke; by bequest to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf; by purchase to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1970.

Excerpted from The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello by Susan R. Stein


Artist/Maker Unknown
Created1809-1819
Origin/PurchaseUnknown
Object TypeFurniture and Lighting
Materialsmahogany
Dimensions39 7/16 x 24 x 24 1/4 in.
LocationParlor

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 24 August 1819, Edwin M. Betts, The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, 431.
  2. Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall, 16 May, 1857, Ellen Coolidge Letterbook, Jefferson-Coolidge Family Collection.
  3. Thomas Jefferson to William Brown, 18 August 1818, Massachusetts Historical Society.
  4. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson, 17 February 1809, Edwin M. Betts, The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, 382.
  5. Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 27 February 1809, Massachusetts Historical Society.
  6. Thomas Bolling Robertson to William Robertson, 7 June 1819, private collection.
  7. Thomas B. Robertson to Thomas Jefferson, 2 August 1819, American Memory Project - The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
  8. Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Robertson, 7 November 1819, American Memory Project - The Thomas Jefferson Papers.

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