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Bentwood Sits Well With Chair Makers

October 01, 1988|RALPH and TERRY KOVEL

Sometimes it isn't easy to make a chair comfortable without padding it with thick cushions. Our ancestors tried many ways. The early wooden Windsor chair was made with a thick wooden seat that was cut to fit the contours of a seated body. If the chair maker was talented, the chair was curved in the right places and the seat was comfortable. Early 19th-Century designers curved the back of a wooden chair or used pliable caned seats for comfort. A few chairs had both the backs and the seats made with bent wood that was curved to fit the human anatomy, and bent wood continued to be popular with chair makers.

Michael Thonet made chairs with thin strips of wood veneer that were steamed, bent and curved. John Henry Belter of New York made or carved them to surround padded seats. The idea of bent strips continued into the 20th Century. By the 1920s both wood and metal were curved and shaped to create unusual but comfortable chair shapes. Plastic was also molded into appropriate chair shapes with body-hugging curves.

A study of the furniture made with bends is part of a traveling museum display of furniture. If you miss the exhibit, read the book, "Bent Wood and Metal Furniture: 1850-1946," edited by Derek Ostergard (University of Washington Press: $50.

Question: How old is the stethoscope? I collect old medical instruments and found what appears to be a very old example.

Answer: In the 18th Century the doctor would tap the patient's body as he listened for odd sounds in the chest. Rene Laennec, a French doctor in Quimper, studied chest sounds and correlated them with diseases found after an autopsy, and he realized that the sounds heard in the chest could help diagnose a disease.

A shy man, he would not put his ear to the chest of a female patient. At first he tried listening by holding a rolled paper cylinder between his ear and the patient's heart. The results were so clear that he decided he needed a more permanent instrument. He invented a wooden device that he called a stethoscope, from the Greek words for "I look into the chest." The early ones were cylinders with funnel-shaped ends and could be used only with one ear. Successful models that were for two ears were not made until the 1850s. The two-ear stethoscope came into general use in the 1880s.

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