Odd, Specialized 18th Century Furniture

Here, from a past Beehive sale, is a clever piece of (reproduction) furniture whose design is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, a father of the American Revolution, canny businessman, life-long culinary explorer, best-selling author, prolific inventor and star of today’s $100 bill. It is a chair which, due to the strategic placement of hinges, can quickly be transformed into a respectably tall stepladder. It is called the Franklin Library Chair, at least here in ‘the Colonies’; in England the very same style of chair is referred to as a Metamorphic Library Chair, or just Library Steps, no pesky American revolutionaries involved!

Either way, these multipurpose chairs made their first appearances in the late 18th Century in both America and Europe (where Franklin had traveled as American Minister (or ambassador) to France and England). Before internet access, free public education, and free public libraries, ‘book learning’ (and accumulating) was the only way to become widely knowledgeable, which Franklin certainly was. Erudite, educated, prosperous folks such as Franklin maintained personal libraries in their homes and as these libraries grew, books got shelved all the way up to the ceiling. The space-saving chair that handily transforms into a ladder became so popular that there were many versions, with furniture makers producing multiple styles to blend seamlessly into client’s decors. Some had elegant curves and padded upholstery, while others were just simple wooden stools that unfolded into steps. Library Chairs are still made today and there are plans online if you want to try building one yourself, although of course it is easier to buy one from QBO. Ben’s original chair toured Philadelphia, St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris from 2005 – 2008 as part of an exhibition honoring the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Next is this odd little piece of furniture that came into popular use during the same period as the Library Chair although this particular model was likely made sometime in the 1970s. Even though it has rockers, it rests at the wrong angle to function as a chair and is too small even for a child. It is ungracefully called a Gout Stool and can be considered an orthopedic aid. 

Gout is an especially painful form of arthritis. Risk factors include being male, being older, being overweight and consuming food and drink rich in purine such as wine, mushrooms, and shellfish, so it wasn’t much of a stretch that gout was also called the Rich Man’s Disease. If the kidneys fail to process excess purine, uric acid can crystallize in joints and surrounding tissues, especially in the big toe, heel, ankle and knee, causing excruciating swelling. Shown here is a 1799 artist’s rendition of what gout feels like – YEOWCH! Recommended treatment was to cut back on indulgences and elevate the affected foot, hence the invention of the fancy little, purpose-dedicated Gout Stool. Today gout sufferers are offered similar advice, plus icing, OTC anti-inflammatories, and prescription medications.

Like the Library Chair, Gout Stools come in many styles, some padded, others all-wood folding assemblies like two spindled chair backs hinged together. Some even look like upholstered wooden commas lying on their backs. What they all have in common (and what sets them apart from ordinary footstools) is they are sized for a single foot and slanted to elevate that foot at a comfortable angle. From what we know about Benjamin Franklin, it might now occur to you to wonder if he also had gout, and the answer is yes; when he was a wealthy, older, overweight “gentleman of leisure” he did indeed. Maybe QBO will someday sell his Gout Stool?